There is a complicated mathematical symbol practically unknown to the House Appropriations Committee. It’s called the minus sign.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is making a long-overdue introduction between appropriators and the symbol that first caught on in 16th-century Europe. It has proven its usefulness to mathematicians and schoolchildren down through the ages, but never in certain congressional committee rooms.
Ryan has set a ceiling for the rest of fiscal year 2011 nonsecurity domestic spending that takes it back to the fiscal year 2008 levels promised in the GOP “Pledge to America.” This is an unheard-of cut that amounts to reversing the physical laws of the universe in Congress.
Ryan’s ceiling would reduce nonsecurity domestic spending by $58 billion from President Barack Obama’s (never enacted) request for this fiscal year, or 12 percent. It would reduce such spending by $43 billion, or 9 percent, from its level in fiscal year 2010.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls these cuts “unworkable” and “even more draconian than we originally anticipated.” What did he originally anticipate? If anything, the GOP cuts are milder than promised. They fall short of the headline number in the pledge of $100 billion in cuts, partly because they apply only to the part of the fiscal year still remaining.
Returning to 2008 can be “draconian” only if the past two years were extravagant. According to Congressional Budget Office numbers, the Department of Education saw an 11 percent increase in its budget from 2008 to 2010 and a 181 percent increase when the stimulus is included; the Department of Energy saw a 10 percent and a 171 percent increase, respectively; the EPA a 36 percent and a 130 percent increase. Washington has been on a binge of Charlie Sheen-like proportions.
The top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen, warns that the Ryan cuts will “harm the economy and put more people out of work.” He’d have us believe that the difference between an economy beginning to heal and an economy slipping back into the abyss is the difference between the current $1.087 trillion and Ryan’s $1.055 trillion in discretionary spending. This is Keynesianism as childishness.
Still, Ryan’s cuts are vulnerable to the criticism that they barely nick a $1.5 trillion deficit. If Congress keeps the lid on spending going forward, though, they will ramify substantially over time. Some of Ryan’s colleagues, admirably, want to hit the $100 billion figure for reductions right away. They shouldn’t underestimate the coming firestorm when Ryan’s cuts are fleshed out in detail.
A Gallup survey found that people oppose cuts in every specific category of spending other than foreign aid. This would be wonderful news if foreign aid were the fiscal ruination of America. It’s not. Majorities oppose cutting everything else, from arts funding to defense to education — not to mention Medicare and Social Security.
The Republican challenge is to resolve the public’s cognitive dissonance between opposition to new debt and opposition to specific spending cuts in favor of austerity. Then, over time, to move from discretionary cuts to cost-saving entitlement reforms. They’ll have to do lots of sharp work with the minus sign.
Lowry is editor of the National Review.