Thomas Edsall, writing in the New York Times, has found what he calls a “sinkhole” in Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.
Reading the fine print, Edsall has discovered $897 billion in unspecified budget cuts that, if enacted, would decimate programs that fund “education, food and drug inspection, workplace safety, environmental protection and law enforcement.”
I’m not a wonkish sort, and the torturous explanation given by Edsall gave me a bad case of MEGO. But essentially, his analysis appears to me to be correct. The Ryan budget has nearly a trillion dollars in unspecified cuts in discretionary spending that affect programs most Americans would consider essential.
After explaining a little about how the budget divides government spending into 20 “budget functions,” Edsall takes a look at the $897 billion in “allowances” earmarked for something called “Function 920.” In budgetese, here’s the definition of what Function 920 is for:
Function 920 represents a category called “allowances” that captures the budgetary effects of cross-cutting proposals or contingencies that impact multiple functions rather than one specific area of the budget. It also represents a place-holder category for any budgetary impacts that the Congressional Budget Office has yet to assign to a specific budget function. C.B.O. typically reassigns the budgetary effects of any legislation enacted within Function 920 once a new baseline update is released.
In other words, Function 920 appears to be a catchall category for spending across several different categories. And as Edsall points out, “These invisible cuts are crucial to the Republican claim that the Ryan budget proposal will drastically reduce the federal deficit (eliminating it entirely in the long run) and ultimately erase the national debt.”
But here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as deficit cutting is concerned:
Under the Ryan budget, “Mandatory and Defense and Nondefense Discretionary Spending” – which includes Function 920 Allowances, but excludes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — would fall from 12.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2011 to 6.75 percent in 2023, 5.75 percent in 2030, 4.75 percent in 2040 and 3.75 percent in 2050, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
The C.B.O. cautiously notes how difficult it would be to cut such spending to 3.75 percent of G.D.P.:
By comparison, spending in this category has exceeded 8 percent of G.D.P. in every year since World War II. Spending for defense alone has not been lower than 3 percent of G.D.P. in any year during that period.
As a practical matter, what does this mean for non-defense discretionary spending — everything the government spends money on, including veterans programs, outside of defense, social security, and Medicare?
From a partisan perspective, we have the president’s take:
The year after next, nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each. There would be 1,600 fewer medical grants, research grants for things like Alzheimer’s and cancer and AIDS. There would be 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students, and teachers. Investments in clean energy technologies that are helping us reduce our dependence on foreign oil would be cut by nearly a fifth.
If this budget becomes law and the cuts were applied evenly, starting in 2014, over 200,000 children would lose their chance to get an early education in the Head Start program. Two million mothers and young children would be cut from a program that gives them access to healthy food. There would be 4,500 fewer federal grants at the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. to combat violent crime, financial crime, and help secure our borders. Hundreds of national parks would be forced to close for part or all of the year. We wouldn’t have the capacity to enforce the laws that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food that we eat.
Cuts to the F.A.A. would likely result in more flight cancellations, delays, and the complete elimination of air traffic control services in parts of the country. Over time, our weather forecasts would become less accurate because we wouldn’t be able to afford to launch new satellites. And that means governors and mayors would have to wait longer to order evacuations in the event of a hurricane.
I imagine there is plenty of exaggeration in there, but cutting discretionary spending from 12.5% of the budget nearly in half in the next decade will severely impact all those programs and agencies. There is no getting around it — they can’t spin it away. It’s there own numbers and the cuts they want to make have to be made somewhere.
They may decide to cut more out of defense, but how much? It’s a dangerous world out there and I doubt whether they can find more savings from the defense budget that the president hasn’t already proposed (without sequestration, around $400 billion over a decade — $1.2 trillion with it).
Before your eyes glaze completely over, let’s get to the point. As I keep trying to explain to my conservative friends, the federal budget bears no resemblance whatsoever to your household budget. The federal budget is a statement of national purpose, not a ledger with dollars and cents that are supposed to add up to zero when it’s balanced. The questions we should be asking after glimpsing the kinds of cuts Paul Ryan envisions is what kind of government do we want? What kind of government do we need?
What is the nature and purpose of the federal government in this, the 21st century, in an industrialized, urban nation of 300 million people?
The problem, as I see it, is that in order to maintain a reasonably safe, reasonably secure civilized society, we must necessarily ask government to perform an amazing array of functions. A federalist might argue that many of the duties that Washington has taken upon itself can be performed by the states. But that only spreads the responsibility among 50 governmental entities.
Take food safety inspections. Arkansas might inspect chickens at the Perdu processing plant, but those birds are going to end up on my dinner table in Illinois. Can I trust the state government of Arkansas to perform inspections at the same level of competence as the FDA?
The reason many functions were assumed by Washington is because states were unwilling or unable to perform them by themselves. A good example is a program like Head Start. Many states had programs that dealt with children in poverty, but others did not. The problem is a national one and demanded a national means to address it.
Do we want 50 different air and water quality standards? Do we want 50 different regulatory regimes that protect the health and safety of workers? There is no doubt a greater role for federalism in the grand scheme of government than is currently in evidence. But many functions of government simply do not lend themselves to a local solution.
Many conservatives just don’t get this. They envision a “small” government — a pining for a federal government from the 19th century when collecting duties on imports, raising an army, and delivering the mail was a large portion of government responsibility. But that government — that country — doesn’t exist anymore. Back then, the urban/rural split was 30-70. Today, those numbers are reversed and 80% of us live in densely packed urban areas. I can’t make an argument that cities would be more livable, or as safe without a big government in Washington.
How big? There’s the rub. I refuse to believe that every dollar being spent by Washington today is necessary or desirable. But in a $3.7 trillion budget, how do you cull those contracts, programs, commissions, agencies, grants, loans, line items, and salaries that a majority of lawmakers would agree are “unnecessary?” The budget, at bottom, is a political document — a statement of national hopes, dreams, desires, and necessities. One man’s waste is probably another’s vital program.
Case in point: transportation. A few hundred thousand dollars to expand an intersection in a small town might look like unnecessary spending to some. But for those town people, it represents an improvement in their quality of life, not to mention an improvement in safety. Should it be cut from the budget because the project has no national purpose and is therefore, better left to be funded by the state? It’s a compelling argument until you start multiplying that project to include the dozens and dozens of towns in that state who need a bridge repaired, another lane for the main highway to handle an increase in population, a road extension to connect to the new mall — the list is endless. I think there are probably many projects in the transportation bill that are unnecessary and wasteful. But with thousands of line items, how do you sort through them all to remove those that most of us would see as offensive to rational government?
The fact is, government has grown beyond our capacity — perhaps beyond human capacity — to manage in any reasonable and rational manner. It’s too big, too vast, and has assumed too many responsibilities. Ryan’s cuts may be draconian and are certainly unrealistic. But his blueprint represents the first effort to my knowledge to try and come to grips with the definition of what we want and need from government. And he is addressing a problem that many respected economists believe to be looming in the near future; that our current levels of government spending are unsustainable and that if we don’t do something to address the problem, we will drown in a sea of debt, taking down our economy and probably social order with it.
It’s not good enough just to rail against Ryan’s plan. Time to start proposing some ideas of your own.