As if we needed further proof that governing is a lot harder than issuing campaign manifestos, now comes brand new Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to say that, well, cutting spending is more difficult than it looked when Republicans issued their Pledge to America last fall.
The pledge promised to cut $100 billion out of non-security domestic discretionary spending during the House GOP's first year in charge, which began Wednesday. But there was Ryan on NBC's Today Show Wednesday morning to say that, well, it's not actually going to be $100 billion. Ryan looks like he might eventually be an unusually aggressive and innovative Budget chairman, but his debut excuse was utterly lame. "We are half-way through the fiscal year right now, so the problem is half the spending cats are already out of the bag, and that is why that number has become compromised," Ryan told NBC host Meredith Vieira.
Well, no, we're not halfway through the fiscal year, we're just about a quarter of the way into fiscal 2011 (which began on Oct. 1). More importantly, though, does this mean Ryan didn't realize that he'd be taking power in January when he and his fellow GOP revolutionaries made their spending-cut promise in September? They didn't check the calendar?
Ryan's explanation was even flimsier when Vieira pressed for specific cuts. He didn't have any. It's up to the appropriators, he said -- the Budget Committee just sets the big number. "We simply lower the cap and those things go down … I can't tell you by what amount and in which program."
True enough in procedural terms, but that makes what will be an excruciating process sound so easy: "We simply lower the cap and those things go down." No wonder appropriators have always resented the Budget Committee. Ryan just lowers the cap, leaving it to the appropriators to do the excruciating work of picking the programs to slash. In this case, according to The New York Times, which broke the story of the shrinking $100 billion Wednesday morning, that would mean cuts of as much as 30% in law enforcement, transportation, research, education and so on. Easy.
This isn't an entirely pointless exercise. Cutting has to start somewhere, and hacking away at domestic programs has always been the default place to start. But savaging domestic programs while the economy is still vulnerable may not be the best way to begin, and it will mean little if Republicans -- and Democrats -- don't eventually go much further by taking on entitlements and the tax code.
In truth, though, House Republicans were never going to make good on their $100 billion promise. That was campaign-trail stuff that sounded good but conveniently ignored the fact that they'd have to get the cuts through the Democratic Senate and past President Obama to make them real. The question was always how they were going to wriggle out of the promise. The answer came Wednesday: awkwardly.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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