What Will the Spending Freeze Amount To?

I did some of the de rigeur outraged base stuff on my twitter feed last night over the proposed post-FY 2011 freeze in non-security discretionary spending. But all that said, it’s far from clear what this will mean in practice. For one thing, the implications of freezing non-security discretionary spending at FY 2011 levels depend a lot on what those FY 2011 levels are, and we don’t yet know the answer to that question.

More to the point, however, we don’t know what the details of the proposals are. We’ve heard a lot of conservative politicians over the past 18 months tout the idea of non-specific across the board freezes or cuts in discretionary spending. That’s a terrible idea, and it’s not what Obama’s proposing. Instead, he’s aiming for what you might call a “cut and invest” strategy — slashing certain programs and boosting others. And I think anyone who looks at it would have to admit that there is, in fact, a lot of discretionary spending on programs of little value. My personal view is that Obama’s OMB team is absolutely first-rate, so even though I don’t endorse the overall zero goal, I’m pretty sure their proposal will consist of wise choices about what can stand to be cut and what needs increasing.

That, however, just raises the question of what happens when this gets kicked to congress. As fans of the public option or a carbon cap with 100 percent auction can attest, the president can propose a lot of stuff that congress isn’t necessarily prepared to enact. The real issue is what happens when special interests push back against the idea of cutting low-value programs. Worst-case scenario is that the administration holds firm on the concept of the freeze while remaining flexible about the specifics. That’s a recipe for per capita cuts in valuable programs anti-poverty and regulatory enforcement programs while waste goes untouched. And that’s really what has to be avoided. The key point for progressives is first to see what the proposal looks like in detail, and second to insist that whatever budget cuts are enacted genuinely fall on programs of little or no value. The fear, conversely, is that the idea of an overall freeze becomes a fetish while the specifics of program analysis fall out of the picture.

This also, of course, raises the question of what’s going to happen with the security budget. Arbitrarily exempting the military from spending discipline is popular among Republicans and Blue Dogs, but it makes little policy sense. If the primary security threat facing the nation is a group of a few thousand lightly armed terrorists, then that naturally raises a lot of questions about the value of a lot of what our military is spending money on. And if the country seriously needs to curtail spending in FY 2012 and FY 2013, that raises questions about the wisdom of making a major long-term commitment to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. I didn’t like John Kerry’s line about how we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in Boston from back in 2004 — it didn’t seem strictly necessary to do either. But if we are going to have a period of austerity, then it of course makes sense to ask whether our scarce resources shouldn’t be concentrated at home.