Reality-Based Budgeting

By Kellyn Brown

Our country’s leaders have promised (using super serious language) to take steps to reduce the federal deficit. “Our nation is approaching a tipping point.” “Another wake-up call.” “Now is the time to act.” These quotes, lifted from three separate political speeches last week, are at once interchangeable and meaningless unless they are attached to concrete ideas. And they’re not.

No one is willing to admit the extent to which spending cuts are necessary to reduce a federal budget deficit poised to hit nearly $1.5 trillion in 2011. That’s a record and, as almost everyone agrees, is unsustainable. So what should be done?

Montana Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget. This is an old idea; he has supported similar measures in every Congress since 2001. His colleagues in the Senate are doing the same thing.

It’s a good start, in theory – holding the country to the same spending restrictions as states such as Montana (which is required to balance its books every legislative session). But the proposal is toothless until it outlines specific cuts to reach that end.

Instead of the painful reality, we are hearing more about small savings that are politically popular. Rehberg has pointed to eliminating earmarks and rescinding unobligated stimulus funds, which combined represent about 1 percent of the projected deficit this year.

At least Rehberg has cited specific measures. Montana’s Democratic senators have addressed deficit solutions in broader terms. Sen. Jon Tester supports the vision of the bipartisan debt commission, which called for $200 billion in spending cuts, increasing the gasoline tax and raising the retirement age. That plan has its share of critics, including Sen. Max Baucus, who argued that it would “paint a big red target on rural America.” Baucus’ ideas for reducing the deficit include ending subsidies to insurance companies and closing loopholes in the nation’s tax code.

All these proposals fall woefully short of making a dent in the deficit. So does President Barack Obama’s recommendation to freeze nondefense discretionary spending for five years. To their credit, House Republican leaders have vowed to return appropriations to 2008 levels by cutting $100 billion in spending, but they haven’t offered more specifics. And there’s a reason why.

Returning spending to pre-recession levels would chop 8 percent to funding for NASA (unpopular in states like Texas and Florida); 11 percent in special education grants (unpopular among schools); and 13 percent to the operation budget of national parks (unpopular in states like Montana). Nor do we hear much about Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid: programs which, along with defense, are the biggest drivers of the deficit.

As each of these savings is proposed in appropriation bills, someone (both Republicans and Democrats) is bound to oppose them. They should begin staking out those positions publicly, but are reluctant to do so. That is, except Republican freshman Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul unveiled his own spending plan that goes much further than his fellow Republicans’, saving $500 billion this year alone. And whether you agree with the proposal, at least he had the guts to cite where the savings would come from.

In his proposal, the Agriculture Department would be cut by 30 percent, including $1.2 billion from the Forest Service; Education by 83 percent; and the Interior by 18 percent, with the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs abolished completely. He also proposed trimming $47.5 billion from the Defense Department, considered off limits by many in Congress.

Paul’s communications director, Moira Bagley, told POLITICO that he sees his proposal “as a way to begin the conversation.” And, to his credit, it really needs to begin somewhere.