A cornerstone of the House Republican pitch on economic policy — first introduced by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and reinforced in the Pledge to America — is immediately returning non-defense discretionary spending to its 2008 level. The GOP claims that this will reduce federal spending by $100 billion overnight, but flatly refuses to name specific programs that would come under the knife. “The line item would be across the board,” asserted Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Pledge’s architect.
Taken at face value, as Dana Goldstein pointed out in the Daily Beast, these cuts would mean a significant reduction in federal Pell Grants and the complete elimination of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program:
With partisanship at record levels in the run-up to the midterm elections, Obama’s education-reform agenda — once the calling card for his commitment to bipartisan good governance — is under threat from both the left and right. Congressional Republicans, including those, like [Sen. Lamar] Alexander (R-TN), who once praised Obama’s education policies, are now calling for a return to 2008 levels of federal spending, which would stop the White House from funding additional Pell Grant student loans and cancel plans for another round of Race to the Top, Obama’s signature education-reform grant competition.
Let’s unpack the numbers here a bit. In 2009, Pell Grant funding was $25.3 billion. In 2008, it was about $16 billion. So cutting back to the 2008 level would mean $9 billion less in funding for students, even though demand is likely to go up as the effects of the Great Recession continue to be felt across the country.
Race to the Top, meanwhile, has been spurring education reform across the country. As the New Teacher Project put it, “Race to the Top has already accelerated education reform by decades in some states.” The ranking member on the House Education Committee has already threatened to cut the program’s funding, and actually implementing the GOP’s spending plan would be the official final nail in its coffin.
Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that Republicans would actually go through with reducing every non-defense discretionary program back to the 2008 level. After all, the Drug Enforcement Administration, food safety inspectors, federal highway funding, and the Secret Service are all on the discretionary side of the budget. But that just means, to get to $100 billion, they’d have to make even bigger cuts in other programs, with education funding providing one of the biggest potential pots.
And that, in the end, is why it would be folly to actually employ the sort of blunt budgeting apparatus that the GOP advocates. (A federal spending freeze also falls into this category.) Such a move has nothing to do with setting priorities, increasing funding for successful programs, or eliminating unsuccessful ones. It just provides a good sound bite. Here’s an actual attempt to cull the education budget for ineffective or duplicative programs.