Boehner Budget Rollback would Cut Scores of Agencies
Policy + Politics

Boehner Budget Rollback would Cut Scores of Agencies

House Republican Leader John Boehner’s plan for rolling back nonsecurity government spending to 2008 levels as part of an overall economic strategy would force cuts in many domestic programs far deeper than Republicans and Democrats have been able to agree on in decades.

Boehner floated the idea last week, saying it would save the government $100 billion in one year and $340 billion over the coming decade. On Monday, several senior House Republicans on key money committees called on  Democrats to begin talks “immediately’’ on a bipartisan bill embracing Boehner’s idea that could pass this fall. They said it would begin to chip away at the budget deficit, now on track to be the second highest ever at $1.3 trillion this year, and deal with bloated government programs.

“There is now an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together to do the right thing by the American people – dial back unsustainable and unnecessary government spending and stop job-killing tax hikes,” declared Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.

The Republicans said that, to make the task easier, the spending rollback plan should not include cuts in defense, homeland security, veterans’ benefits or mandatory programs under Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs account for more than 80 percent of all federal spending.

But in practice, the plan would lead to widespread protest – and not just from Democrats. Though it’s impossible to predict exactly where the $100 billion in cuts would fall, because Republicans haven’t proposed specific cuts yet, in the aggregate they would total more than 20 percent of what Republicans have defined as nonsecurity discretionary spending – about $478 billion.

That would require sharp cuts at civilian agencies ranging from NASA and the National Science Foundation to the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bureau of Prisons, based on GOP estimates. The plan could slash money for child care and education programs, including No Child Left Behind – one of former President George W. Bush’s signature initiatives. Moreover, those cuts would come on top of savings House Democrats hope to achieve through a somewhat less stringent cap on nonsecurity spending proposed by President Obama.

James Horney, a budget analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a cut in nonsecurity discretionary programs back to the levels of 2008 would be almost unprecedented, and proportionately would exceed the budget cuts in the early part of President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

“It would be a huge cut,’’ said Horney. “It doesn’t sound radical,
but it would affect millions of people much more than they expect.’’

Boehner’s proposal is part of the jousting before midterm elections, providing a riposte to Democratic accusations that Republicans only care about protecting tax cuts for the wealthy. Over the next decade, Boehner’s proposed spending cuts would roughly match the loss in revenues from extending the Bush tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year.

The Obama administration signaled it’s opposition to Boehner’s approach. “The President has proposed a budget that will freeze discretionary spending outside security for three years, and bring this spending to its lowest level in half a century,” said Kenneth Baer, the Office of Management and Budget communications director. “And he’ll do it by carefully cutting those programs that do not work or are duplicative, not by slashing indiscriminately at programs that keep our people safe and our economy growing.”
If the Republicans' proposed domestic spending cuts were spread evenly through all the affected programs, they would require deep cuts in basic services and big projects, according to budget policy experts. Some examples:

  • NASA would have to slash its budget by $4.1 billion below President Obama’s request – an amount that administration officials said would be equal to what NASA spends on the international space station and on aeronautics research. 
  • The Internal Revenue Service would have to cut spending by $3 billion. That might require a reduction in enforcement, at a time when the agency is already struggling to narrow a $290 billion “tax gap” – taxes owed but not paid. 
  • The National Science Foundation would have to cut at least $1.5 billion – an amount equal to all its funding on research in biology and engineering. Alternatively, according to Obama administration officials, the NSF could eliminate all its education programs and all of its research facilities in Antarctica.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission, which was eviscerated by budget cuts earlier in the decade and came in for savage criticism under the Bush administration for failing to catch massive stock swindles or to curb Wall Street risk-taking, would have to retrench once again. 

The Obama administration has proposed an 11 percent increase in the SEC’s budget for next year to $1.25 billion, about $350 million more than its budget in 2008.

Scores of questions remained unanswered on Monday about the Republican proposal. One big one: What programs would count as “homeland security” and be protected from cuts? The Obama administration does not include the FBI in that category, and administration officials estimated that a 20 percent cut in the FBI’s budget would be equal to the cost of employing 2,700 special agents. Republican officials on the House Budget Committee said they thought the FBI would be spared from cuts.

The spending cuts would almost certainly hit federal prison spending, which has seen its budget climb from $5 billion in 2008 to $8.5 billion in 2010, as the nation’s population of prison inmates has soared.

To be sure, the Obama administration has ramped up spending in many areas that suit Democratic political preferences, from green-energy projects to education initiatives like Race to the Top, a program aimed at fostering innovation in local school districts. But analysts say many programs have become more expensive because they must serve more people or because they reflect popular priorities for both political parties. Though inflation has been low in recent years, it has nonetheless pushed budgets higher as well.

Though the Internal Revenue Service is one of the agencies that few people want to make more powerful, the IRS’s independent oversight board, made up of outside experts, has argued for years that the agency needed to spend more money on modernization and customer service.

The IRS’s budget has climbed from just below $11 billion in 2008 to $12.1 billion this year, and the Obama administration has proposed a 4.7 percent increase to $12.6 billion for 2011. But part of that increase is going to improve the tax agency’s ability to answer calls from taxpayers. As recently as 2008, the agency could barely answer half of all calls from the public. The agency has spent millions to boost its response rate, but the administration figures it needs another $25 million this year just to answer seven of every 10 calls from taxpayers.