Those who have demanded and supported cuts in federal spending over the years have insisted that the reductions could be done more or less painlessly. The government operates so inefficiently, they say, that the cuts barely would be noticed.
Whether it is military spending at the Pentagon, domestic spending at the Department of Justice or the National Park Service, or an entitlement like Social Security, we repeatedly have been told that reductions in spending wouldn’t affect anything but the federal deficit. That’s possible, say the proponents of spending cuts, because the system was replete with waste, fraud and abuse — and that was the only thing that actually would be cut.
Up to now this it-won’t-hurt-a-bit federal spending-cut mantra has gone mostly unchallenged because it was largely untested. When cuts occurred at all, most that were adopted were relatively limited.
But as a story in last week’s New York Times about reductions in state jails shows, we’ve now come to the point where spending cuts are indeed having a noticeable and often very unpleasant impact.
The Times piece was just the latest in a series of recent stories about similar situations, and the protests that already have begun. Some localities plan to save money by switching to four-day school weeks and some states are closing rest areas on major roads. There’s also what appears to be a serious effort by the U.S. Postal Service to deal with its budget problems by eliminating Saturday mail delivery.
Doing away with Saturday delivery in today’s world of texts and e-mails may not strike fear into the hearts of anyone but the letter carriers who have to give up a day’s work and pay. But as the Times story shows, convicted criminals getting lighter sentences or being paroled earlier for budget reasons is not sitting very well with many people, and they are actively opposing the reductions. Similarly, those who drive with children or have weak bladders may not miss the rest stop food, but they clearly won’t appreciate having fewer toilets between here and there. Their protests have gotten some states to reopen some previously closed roadside facilities.
And parents whose children may go to school four instead of five days are already complaining about having to make considerable adjustments to their own work schedules and arrange for additional day care. Parents are also protesting other cuts, such as after-school activities like sports and band.
With the exception of the Postal Service proposal, these examples are from state and local governments. That’s not surprising: Lower revenues as a result of the recession, combined with existing spending commitments and legally binding balanced budget requirements mean that, at least for now, that’s where the most severe budget problems exist. By contrast, not only is the federal government not constrained by a balanced budget law, over the past two years its need to deal with the economic downturn virtually dictated that spending not be cut and that deficits be increased. As a result, the type of budget reductions that are being considered or imposed at other levels of government have not yet become commonplace in Washington.
But they’re coming. The "baseline" deficit (the deficit that would occur if Washington were on the fiscal equivalent of automatic pilot and all current laws remained unchanged) will be close to $1 trillion once the bailout and stimulus programs are over and spending in Iraq and Afghanistan ends. Spending reductions will have to be part of the political calculation when the federal deficit again becomes a primary focus.
And just like what’s happening today with the proposed reductions at schools, rest stops and jails, federal budget cuts are likely to be opposed at least as vehemently as people realize that it isn’t just wasteful, fraudulent and abusive spending that is being cut. That’s not to say that spending cuts won’t or shouldn’t be considered, only that the opposition will be greater than many may be expecting.