Obama Budget to Call for Freeze in Non-Security Discretionary Spending


On an exciting phone call with progressive internet writers earlier this evening, a senior administration official outlined the Obama administration’s plan to call for a freeze in non-security discretionary spending spending starting with the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Described as an effort to balance concern with a “massive GDP gap” in the short run and “very substantial budget deficits out over time,” the plan calls for the FY 2011 budget to be higher than the FY 2010 budget, but then for non-security discretionary spending to be held constant in FY 2012 and FY 2013. (Let me note right here that all of the reporters on the call, myself included, screwed up and forgot to seek clarification as to whether this is a nominal freeze or a real dollar freeze).

The freeze would not apply to the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, or to the foreign operations budget of the State Department. The official emphasized that the freeze is not the only element of the administration’s plans for deficit reduction, just the only element he was prepared to discuss on this particular call. “This is only one component of an overall budget,” he said, “you’ll see other components on Monday.”

So is this an across-the-board freeze like we’ve heard Republicans call for? No, it’s “not a blunt across the board freeze.” Rather, some agencies will see their budgets go up and others will go down, producing an overall freeze effect. The senior official sought to portray this as not just a question of spending less money, but of getting our money’s worth—cutting (unspecified) ineffective programs and spending more on programs that work.

This of course leaves some serious unanswered questions about both specifics and political strategy. To try to game this out, let’s assume that Obama is really serious about tackling weak claims rather than weak claimants. That means you’ll see a proposal for drastic, politically unrealistic cuts in farm subsidies while keeping in place growing funding for useful things like community health centers. So what happens when that hits congress?

Scenario one is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks like Kent Conrad turn out to like farm subsidies, decline to implement those cuts, and pass a budget that doesn’t actually freeze spending. Then Obama gets to chide them, and say it’s not his fault congress is so spendy.

Scenario two is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks turn out to like farm subsidies, and Obama launches a big political crusade on behalf of his cuts, threatening to veto anything that doesn’t come close to the spirit of what he’s proposing. That would be . . . interesting.

Scenario three, the really troubling one, is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks turn out to like farm subsidies, and Obama draws a line in the sand over the concept of a freeze, while being flexible about the details. Under that scenario, the weak claims don’t get cut and instead the politically powerless need to bear the brunt of the burden of a tactical political gambit.

Last, though probably least likely (call it Scenario Q) the administration has actually tried to draw up what it thinks is a politically realistic list of spending cuts that doesn’t touch the most famously untouchable areas of the budget. I don’t even have any idea what that would look like.

Last week in a paper for CAP, Michael Linden criticized undue emphasis on discretionary spending freezes as a solution to fiscal problems:

Freezing discretionary spending, the spending that Congress reappropriates every year, at current levels will similarly yield only very small budgetary savings. The federal government spent a bit more than $625 billion on non-defense discretionary programs in 2009. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, in five years, the federal government will spend about $660 billion on the same programs. Freezing non-defense discretionary spending at current levels would therefore only produce a total savings of $35 billion in 2015. That year, the budget deficit is expected to be around $760 billion. Saving $35 billion would solve less than 5 percent of the problem. There may be some savings to be found in non-defense discretionary programs, but a spending freeze would accomplish extremely little in the way of measurable deficit reduction.

The official emphasized that there’s more to the administration’s plans that this freeze proposal, though what that might be will have to wait. Suffice it to say that I’m very skeptical of this approach. I’m attempting not to freak out because (a) I don’t have details and (b) I suspect this initiative was deliberately leaked to progressive bloggers in an effort to get denounced by the left and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction.