Presuming an anti-spending mandate from the voters, congressional Republicans are eagerly anticipating their coming budget fights with President Obama and the Democrats. But, if Democrats play it right, they can win the first battle over funding the government and set Republicans on their heels.
With the “continuing resolution” that’s funding government operations for fiscal 2011 due to expire on March 4, the first battle will come from ensuring the government is operational for the ensuing seven months. Republicans’ recent backtracking on a campaign promise to cut $100 billion in spending “in the first year” and, instead, aim for $60 billion for the rest of 2011, is just a prelude to the coming attraction.
That’s because, as some experienced Republicans surely know, the battles to come will revolve around one of the great disconnects in public opinion – Americans’ desire to cut “spending” in general but to protect the vast majority of programs in particular. When the battle is over “cutting spending,” GOP anti-spenders hold the upper hand; when the battle turns to cutting programs, the fight shifts to the turf of Democrats, who vow to protect education, environmental protection, law enforcement, and the other programs that dominate the non-security part of discretionary spending on which the GOP has set its sights.
Yes, Republicans who now run the House can cut unpopular things like “international affairs” (i.e., foreign aid) and “general government” (i.e., funding for Congress, the Office of Personnel Management, etc.), but they’ll find scant dollars in those fiscally tiny areas. They’ll also have to focus on the programs that dominate non-security discretionary spending – education, health, agriculture, housing, transportation, and so on – from which tens of millions of real people receive real benefits.
A savvy Democratic Party will analyze Republican cuts in detail, calculating -- for each proposed cut-- the total number of working parents, children, senior citizens, and people with disabilities who will lose benefits, and even the number of such people in each state and congressional district. That’s what President Clinton and Democrats did in 1995 when a new Republican-run Congress tried to fulfill its own anti-spending pledges.
At that point, a politically bloodied House Republican caucus will either follow through and approve the $60 billion in cuts (even though they’d never make it past a Democratic Senate or Obama) and paint themselves as heartless, or they’ll retreat in the face of public opposition to the cuts.
Either scenario would strengthen Obama and the Democrats’ position as they move next to a fight over Republican demands to attach – to legislation this spring to raise the debt limit – more spending cuts or changes in the budget process that would force more spending cuts. In that fight, Democrats can simply repeat the strategy they had presumably used to great effect in the earlier battle.
Thus, Democrats can shape the contours of upcoming fiscal debates to great advantage. If they fight over whether to “cut spending” in general, they’ll lose. If, however, they drill down to the particulars, they’ll gain the upper hand.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.
Visit the Capital Exchange home page.