It is inevitable that there will be great controversy over how much should be cut from federal spending this year and which programs should take the brunt of those cuts. But we should be able to reach reasonable agreement on the process by which these decisions are made. Regrettably, the process chosen by the new House Republican majority is just plain nuts.
One of the most important things to keep in mind in evaluating this process is that so much of the budget has been placed off limits to cuts that if all of what remains were eliminated, it would reduce the budget deficit by less than 33 percent. In their campaign manifesto “Pledge to America,” Republicans promised not to touch the big entitlements – like Medicare and Medicaid. That pledge effectively protected 67 percent of the federal budget and left $1.3 trillion of discretionary spending vulnerable to reductions.
Then the Republicans said they would also exempt the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs from cuts, which took about two thirds of the remaining discretionary spending off the table as well. That left only $464 billion of so-called “Non Security Spending” that could be cut -- which curiously includes the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals and Justice Department efforts to prosecute suspected terrorists.
It is that $464 billion of domestic government programs that House Republicans targeted last week to absorb net cuts of $44 billion -- a move that would reduce annual spending levels in those areas on average by 9.5 percent. But since they are mandating that these cuts take effect during the remainder of the current fiscal year that began more than four months ago, the impact will be much greater than usual and the operating levels could decline by around 19 percent.
For many agencies, such a reduction is not possible. Nor would such cuts have any appreciable effect on the deficit. That’s because 96 percent of the FBI budget, for example, is in payroll, and termination costs would offset any budget savings in the first six months after a termination. You could literally shut the FBI down completely and still not meet the budget savings target. The same is true of the Bureau of Prisons, the Internal Revenue Service, Air Traffic Control and the administration of Social Security payments – to name just a few such agencies.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., provided a laundry list of cuts today. They total about $23 billion so they appear at this point to be only half way to their target and I am told the subcommittee staffs have been ordered back to find more cuts over night.
What is most outrageous is that this effort to totally reshape the federal government is taking place in the period of days without any of the appropriate efforts to vet these decisions or try to anticipate some of the unintended consequences of these hastily decided cuts. There will be no hearings; no detailed staff analysis; no opportunity for agencies or the public to comment; no formal record of evidence to take to the Congress or the American people and explain why the reductions in spending for these important services is are necessary. In short, no effort is being made to identify waste, fraud and abuse, and no differentiation is being made between cutting fat and cutting muscle.
The American people deserve better than this and the members of the new majority in the House would do themselves a great service by taking a deep breath and organizing a more deliberative process by which to make these difficult decisions. I go into more depth on this subject in a column I posted earlier today on the Center for American Progress website.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Democratic clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.