Even if you put the close-to-impossible politics aside, any budget wonk would have told the GOP that for purely technical reasons it was going to be almost impossible to deliver on the promise it made in its Pledge to America to cut $100 billion from the federal budget this year.
That’s why it was anything but a surprise when, as Jackie Calmes noted in yesterday’s New York Times, on the first day they formally took control of the House of Representatives Republicans did what every fiscal technician knew was inevitable: They announced that they were not going to cut domestic discretionary spending to 2008 levels as they repeatedly said they would do.
The technical side of this has always been quite simple: It’s exceptionally difficult to cut spending when we’re already four months into the fiscal year; the reductions have to be much larger to achieve the desired level of savings in the shorter period of time. In this case, House Republicans were looking at making the decision as the current continuing resolution expires in March, that is, with only six months left in the year. Reducing spending by $100 billion in six months meant coming up with cuts closer to $200 billion on an annual basis. Given the areas of spending the GOP said would be exempt from reductions, the cuts from what’s left would have had to have been even larger and included massive layoffs. When they finally realized what they would be asking their members to vote for, the political reality of the situation apparently finally hit home for House Republicans.
In addition to the GOP finally recognizing that federal budget reality often intrudes on political promises, there are a number of interesting aspects to the Republican decision to punt on its pledge to cut $100 billion in spending this year.
1. The GOP got nothing in return. Even if it always knew the $100 billion spending cut pledge was going to be impossible to keep, it makes little sense for Republicans to unilaterally decide not to comply with it without getting something in return from congressional Democrats or the White House. The hardball strategy would have been to put a new spending level in place that assumed the full $100 billion in cuts and then agree to less in a few months in return for something when negotiating with Democrats over the extension of the continuing resolution. The fact that they didn’t do this is more than a little curious.
2. This is at least the second time the tea party has been hosed by congressional Republicans since the election in November (many tea party types are very unhappy about the estate tax deal with the White House).
3. The GOP insistence that the pledge to cut $100 billion this year was just a target or, as Calmes put it in her story, “hypothetical,” is revisionist nonsense. It was repeated so often during the campaign that it was close to a GOP mantra.
4. The GOP claim that it’s all the Democrats’ fault because the CR will be in effect until March is similarly ridiculous. The GOP had the opportunity during the lame duck to insist on a shorter CR if it had wanted one and could have forced the issue by filibustering the bill in the Senate. It also could have pushed for 2011 spending cuts in that CR. It didn’t.