The Shape of Cuts to Come

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In an excellent column, Stan Collender makes the point that it does no good to talk about cutting spending in pure numerical terms. If you don’t spell out which actual things you want the government to do less of then you’re not really doing anything. If we have a “hiring freeze,” for example, what tasks currently undertaken by civil servants are going to go undone?

My colleagues Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden try to take this on in a new report they call “A Thousand Cuts.” It starts by looking at the quantity of deficit reduction that would be needed by 2015 in order to achieve the goal of “primary balance” (i.e., receipts equal non-interest spending) by that year. And it spells out a few different scenarios. One entails doing 33% of the reduction through spending cuts, one entails doing it with 50% cuts, one entails 75% cuts, one entails 100% through cuts, and one features 100% cuts and doesn’t count tax expenditures as spending. The report is both a guide to specifically which programs are relatively low value and also to how extraordinarily painful the reductions would have to be to do this all or exclusively on the spending side.

Something it would be nice to see the media do is challenge senators who want cuts to talk about programs that specifically impact their constituency. Do senators from farm states want to cut farm subsidies? Do senators from timber states favor eliminating the special tax subsidy for the timber industry? Does your state have too many FBI agents in it? Do ACA-haters really want to insist on reversing proposed Medicare cuts. There’s some waste in the federal government, and also some programs that we don’t need, but it’s not just a bunch of bureaucrats sitting around lighting piles of cash on fire. To cut spending, something needs to actually go undone.