Please, Mr. President, May I Have Some More?
"Please, Sir, may I have some More?" So asked the eponymous hero of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, only to be upbraided by the portly gentlemen directors of the workhouse where Oliver lives.
These days conservatives are feeling a lot like little Oliver Twist -- asking the President and Congress for more in the way of spending cuts and receiving only rough treatment in return. How often have we heard the President accuse the Tea Party of "blocking" agreements? How often has he accused conservatives in the House of "unwillingness to compromise," even as he offers nothing but tax increases and phantom spending cuts in return? Even Speaker Boehner is suggesting no more than $932 billion in cuts, while shifting responsibility for further cuts to a bi-partisan commission.
Well, conservatives are not going to stop asking for "some more" in the way of cuts. How about an immediate, actual 10% reduction in federal spending, followed by a credible plan to balance the budget and begin paying off the national debt? That seems like a pretty modest request, but just recall the uproar at "cut, cap, and balance." Harry Reid said it "perhaps some of the worst legislation in the history of the country." Nancy Pelosi called it "outrageous." With opinions like that, imagine how far they will go to defeat the sort of spending cuts needed to balance the budget!
That's unfortunate, because real spending cuts would spark economic growth, job creation, and major new investment. In fact, an immediate 10% reduction in spending would send the message to credit markets that America is serious about fiscal restraint. It would probably be enough to avoid a credit rating downgrade. It would certainly instill confidence in overseas investors who hold $4 trillion worth of Treasury bonds. It would also instill confidence in our economy on the part of those at home and abroad who have resisted investing capital in American businesses. In other words, it would be a good first step toward averting the fiscal chaos that will certainly ensue if Washington does not get serious about the debt.
Unfortunately, even the idea of an actual and immediate 10% cut -- or, for that matter, an actual 2% cut -- has been greeted with contempt. A 2% cut in current spending amounts to $74 billion, a sum that should be easy to locate in a federal budget of $3.7 trillion. But Democrats blocked anything like that amount of cutting in the FY2011 budget resolution, and they are just as resistant to cutting 2% from future spending. When asked what they might be willing to cut, the President and Democrats in Congress remain mum. They are not willing to cut anything.
That's why a 10% reduction in FY2012 is so appealing. Most Americans understand that a 10% cut in a budget that is already enormously bloated is not unreasonable. Most of them, except those living at the very bottom, could find a way to cut their own spending by 10% if necessary. They can't understand why Washington won't cut spending when it is faced with a real emergency.
$370 billion of cuts would not be difficult to identity. There are 100 programs, each with billions or hundreds of millions in funding, that deserve to be cut entirely. Would anyone outside the Washington mourn the loss of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)? How about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? The National Endowment for the Arts? High-speed rail? $800 million in aid to Hamas? $360 million in funding for Planned Parenthood?
This would be a good start, but there are bigger fish in the pond. At $84 billion, Health and Human Services is the second largest area of discretionary spending. Major reductions could be found in HHS. At $78 billion, transportation is just below HHS. This is clearly another area ripe for cutting. There is also $50 billion budgeted for education, an area where the federal government has no constitutional justification for spending anything. And Housing and Urban Development at $42 billion. So far as I can tell, HUD's only major initiative under the Obama administration has been to threaten stable middle-class neighborhoods with an influx of "affordable housing" projects.
Anyone who says that the federal budget cannot be cut by 10% is not looking closely enough, or else they are just trying to defend programs, such as NEA, supported by narrow interest groups. Not only would cuts to such departments as Education, Transportation, HHS, HUD, and EPA do no harm, they would do a lot of good by reducing federal mandates on states and regulations on businesses. Everyone would be better off except the half million federal employees now earning over $100,000 a year.
The President has spoken often of his intention of cutting waste and abuse. What do you call adding 200,000 federal workers, as Obama has, at a time when 8 million Americans outside Washington have lost their jobs? And then paying them twice, on average, what ordinary Americans make?
Conservatives are hardly being unreasonable in asking for "some more" in budget cuts. Ordinary Americans understand that when times are hard, they must make sacrifices. They expect government to make sacrifices, too. In fact, they expect government to make more sacrifices than the taxpayers who work to support government. When Washington finally gets this through its skull, maybe there will be real progress on balancing the federal budget.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.