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.
Our so-called defense budget, which has nearly doubled since 2001, was $700 billion in 2011 (including spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). It accounts for more than two-fifths of the world's military spending, about 10 times our share of the world's population.
In this context, Obama's defense "cuts" are irresponsible only in the sense that they do not go nearly far enough. Any politician who insists that the U.S. continue to police the globe -- maintaining alliances that have lost their reason for existing, defending wealthy countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves and engaging in one optional war after another -- has no credibility when he promises to "eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential."
But let's assume Romney can reach his target while recklessly expanding the Pentagon's already bloated budget. Where will that get us? "I will put us on a path to a balanced budget," he said in his speech to Americans for Prosperity last week. Translation: I will never balance the budget. By contrast, the plan outlined by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, one of Romney's rivals in the race for the Republican nomination, would balance the budget by 2015.
Clearly, Paul's idea of "absolutely essential" government programs is a bit narrower than Romney's. But whose isn't?