Today, the Senate plans to consider a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA reauthorization had been bogged down by a hold, courtesy of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), but Corker announced yesterday that he would release the hold and allow the bill to move forward.
Unfortunately, Corker’s shenanigans aren’t the only ones affecting the FAA bill. An amendment has also been proposed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) that would implement a cap on discretionary spending for the next three years, leaving discretionary spending (which accounts for about one-third of the budget) at the fiscal 2010 level through 2013.
This isn’t the first time that these two have put forth this amendment. It failed once in January, receiving 56 votes, and once more in February, with 59 votes (amendments require 60 votes for adoption). So the measure is one additional yea vote away from passing this time.
While McCaskill and Sessions at least include discretionary defense spending in their freeze (while exempting spending on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan), the notion that a blanket freeze is a good way to reduce deficits is severely misguided. For one thing, it locks in funding without any debate as to whether current levels are appropriate, and it will limit the ability of the Congress to respond to changing demands (such as the dramatic increase in demand for Pell Grants that followed the economic downturn). As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out, this makes it hard “to do much of anything for the middle class that’s important” going forward.
A freeze removes any sense of prioritization from the budget (building effective programs while eliminating ineffective or duplicative ones), and simply whacks away a chunk of funding across the board. As CAP Senior Fellow Scott Lilly has pointed out, programs that are under the radar, but vital to the nation’s functioning, will likely end up on the short end of a freeze. He points to meat inspection and air traffic control, both of which will have to expand in the coming years, as the sort of programs that are taken for granted and will come under the knife.
Because it relies on the FY2010 budget resolution, the McCaskill/Sessions plan is essentially the institutionalization of Obama’s much-ballyhooed three-year spending freeze. It doesn’t address the real problems in the federal budget — which mostly have to do with health care — but it lets lawmakers feel like they’re proactively addressing deficits; it is the very definition of deficit peacockery.
This afternoon, I spoke with Jim Horney, the Director of Federal Fiscal Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and according to some preliminary estimates that he’s made, McCaskill and Sessions’ charge that their cap is similar to Obama’s isn’t true. In fact, their amendment would mandate discretionary spending cuts, beyond what the President proposed, of $66 billion in 2012 and $21.8 billion in 2013.