Is the GOP finally getting serious about spending cuts? (Maybe)

When Congressman Paul Ryan released his “Pathway to Prosperity” plan, Democrats strafed the media with strong criticism (“immoral,” “Social Darwinism” “a radical vision”), while Republicans claimed that plan was as an earnest attempt to check out-of-control spending. 

Well, the skirmish is far from over as the Ryan budget calls for six committee panels to ferret out around $18.5 billion in savings for the 2013 budget and around $260 billion over 10 years. With over a trillion-dollar deficit projected for next year’s budget alone, the average American would probably view those goals as rather modest and achievable. But this is Washington, and here risk aversion has been elevated to art form. 

Last week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)—who, as a Senate freshman promised to serve only one term if the deficit was not halved—surrendered to pressure from party leaders and postponed any vote on a budget until, more than likely, after the November elections. That’s three years and counting without a budget from congressional Democrats. 

If  Democrats are unwilling to show their hand, and the prospects of Republicans passing their own are non-existent, why would the GOP risk exposing themselves with potentially unpopular cuts? 

“It’s important for them to get in the habit of doing this,” Dan Holler, who has been following the House reconciliation for Heritage Foundation, explained. “If they take back control, they have to be ready to make these kinds of hard choices. As long as they get in habit and show voters that they’ve learned their lessons this time and that they plan on doing something substantive, they’re on the right track.”

But are they making hard choices?

Medical liability reform

The Energy and Commerce Committee tells Human Events that it will realize savings by using a combination of previously “approved bills and new proposals” from medical liability reform, some spending that will be eliminated from Obamacare and other Medicaid reforms that will offer more flexibility for a bit less cost.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee is expected to find savings by slightly raising the amount federal employees must contribute to pensions and contracting the overall federal workforce through attrition.

But the most politically contentious cuts will almost certainly revolve around the House Committee on Agriculture and is cuts to food stamps—now known as SNAP. Today, food stamps constitute nearly 80 percent of Ag’s entire budget. The cost has tripled in the past decade with no end in sight. 

During Committee’s reconciliation instruction meeting, committee chairman Frank Lucas claimed that cutting government spending “is never an easy task,” but, he went on, “it is our responsibility to find ways to cut our costs so that we can once again live within our means.” 

Will they take on subsidies?

So it must be noted that though the Oklahoma Republican has proposed closing loopholes that might save about $14 billion over 10 years—which may be politically perilous considering Democrats will mercilessly juxtapose the false choice of “cutting food stamps” and “tax breaks for millionaires—the committee has avoided a really hard choice on the GOP’s favorite state intervention, farm subsidies. 

A spokesperson for Lucas’ office reminds me that the Congressman has already stated that reconciliation is “is just an exercise” and once the farm bill is written the committee will consider reductions in all areas. Will they tackle subsidies? No answers yet.

The budget reconciliation would substitute automatic reductions that would hit defense spending in January. Another budget that Republicans don’t seem willing to touch. Everyone understands without entitlement reform the problems we face will continue. But surely, the GOP would imbue themselves with a newfound credibility if they took on some of their own favorite spending. 

Then again, some conservatives may appreciate that the party is headed in the right direction. Even if they are baby steps.