The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold recently took a look at the $38 billion in spending cuts that Republicans and Democrats agreed to in 2011 in order to avoid a government shutdown. Fahrenthold estimates that $17 billion of those “cuts” were little more than budgetary gimmicks. For instance, $6 billion in authorized spending for the previous year’s decennial census were merely wiped off the books and counted as a “cut.”
Fahrenthold’s piece is a good reminder of how unserious politicians from both parties are about cutting spending. But I want to make two additional points.
First, real or not, let’s not forget that the $38 billion in “cuts” were a drop in the bucket that year compared to total spending, the deficit, and even interest on the debt:
Second, unless entire agencies or programs are terminated, spending cuts will probably end up only being temporary. Following the 2011 agreement, I demonstrated this by noting that many of the programs that were cut were also cut in a 1995 deal:
Agricultural Research Service, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Rural Development programs, Women, Infants & Children, Foreign Agricultural Service, National Institute of Standards & Technology, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Economic Development Administration, National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Small Business Administration, State Department foreign aid, Fund for African Development, International Development assistance, Economic Support Fund, Peacekeeping Operations, Trade Development Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Forest System, Appalachian Regional Commission, Department of Energy administration, Fossil Energy Research & Development, energy conservation programs, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, Community Service Employment for Older Americans, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Administration on Aging, Youthbuild, Adult Education, programs for K-12 and higher education, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, rail subsidies, Federal Transit Administration, Financial Management Service, Veterans Affairs construction projects, Housing Counseling Assistance, public housing programs, Community Development Financial Institutions Funds, Corporation for National & Community Service, Legal Services Corporation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation.
They were all cut in 1995 under a rescissions package engineered by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and cut last week in the budget agreement reached by Republican and Democratic leaders.
The lesson here is that there’s a big difference between spending cuts and terminating entire agencies and their programs. Like the mythological Hydra, the stump has to be burned after the head is cut off or else it’ll grow back.