Jacob Sullum
Presenting his fiscal plan in USA Today last week, Mitt Romney said he wants to "eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential." That sounds good until you realize that Romney's goal of cutting $500 billion from projected federal outlays in 2016 would, at best, leave the budget about 8 percent higher than it is now and only 11 percent lower than it would be without any attempt to restrain spending.

The implication: Mitt Romney thinks 89 percent of what the federal government does is "absolutely essential." And that's what he says when he is trying to appeal to the fiscally conservative Republicans whose votes he will need to win his party's presidential nomination. Who knows what he really thinks, assuming he has any firm convictions at all on this crucial question.

The specific cuts highlighted by Romney suggest he does not. He predictably zeroes in on the National Endowment for the Arts, a favorite target of conservatives, but he does not zero it out. Instead, he recommends "deep reductions" in the NEA's funding, which was $155 million this year, or 0.004 percent of the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Likewise, he wants to cut but not eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Getting rid of these three programs, which are not "absolutely necessary" by any stretch of the imagination, would save less than $1 billion a year, about 0.02 percent of the total budget. What does it say about Romney's commitment to fiscal restraint that he can't even go that far?

Regarding foreign aid, Romney bravely takes a stand against giving taxpayer money to "countries that oppose America's interests," but does not name any. It seems safe to assume he would make only minor cuts to the foreign aid budget, which in any event accounts for just 1 percent of federal spending.

Romney wants to "eliminate subsidies for the unprofitable Amtrak," which he says would save $1.6 billion a year, and "eliminate Title X family planning programs benefiting abortion groups like Planned Parenthood," which cost about $300 million a year. The only big-ticket item on his list of illustrative cuts is ObamaCare, which he wants to repeal, thereby saving $95 billion in 2016. All together, these cuts represent less than 3 percent of federal spending in 2011 and less than 8 percent of the $1.3 trillion deficit.

Romney also wants to increase spending, saying he would "undo the Obama administration's irresponsible defense cuts." President Obama has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to find $450 billion in savings during the next decade, which would reduce projected military spending by 6 percent, still leaving the Pentagon's budget bigger in 2021 than it is today.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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