Cut Rate: What's Going On With the 2011 Budget Deal?

Yesterday, I was making fun of Paul Krugman for his overwrought objections to the FY2011 budget deal, which he thinks is setting the stage for the GOP's final solution for the problem of old people and children. Well, now I guess it's time for me to make fun of myself because some serious analysts have concluded that the deal is filled with so many gimmicks and money shufflings that the "real" cuts are little more than $14 million.

A close look at the government shutdown-dodging agreement to cut federal spending by $38 billion reveals that lawmakers significantly eased the fiscal pain by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs President Barack Obama had targeted anyway.

Such moves permitted Obama to save favorite programs — Pell grants for poor college students, health research and "Race to the Top" aid for public schools, among others — from Republican knives.

And big holes in foreign aid and Environmental Protection Agency accounts were patched in large part. Republicans also gave up politically treacherous cuts to the Agriculture Department's food inspection program.

The full details of Friday's agreement weren't being released until overnight as it was officially submitted to the House. But the picture already emerging is of legislation financed with a lot of one-time savings and cuts that officially "score" as savings to pay for spending elsewhere, but that often have little to no actual impact on the deficit.

I have a little sympathy for Boehner and other Old Guard types here. They have been around long enough to have seen other periods when the public proclaimed itself to be very concerned with the skyrocketing federal budget. But those periods of fiscal reform quickly gave way underneath an avalanche of howls over cuts to Big Bird, babies, and old people. We saw a replay of it just last week when Democrats were ranting about how the GOP was using the budget process to expand breast cancer rates. Stupid? Yes. But don't tell me that there aren't millions of people out there for whom such arguments are oddly compelling. And in the past, those are the people whose views have prevailed.

Still, the end result of all the negotiating is dispiriting. $14 billion? Out of a budget whose deficits alone amount to over a trillion dollars a year? That doesn't even rise to the level of a pittance.

Yes, it's true that the GOP has "changed the conversation" in DC, meaning everyone is at least talking about budget cutting. But outside of Paul Ryan, no one is talking about what they would cut. That is because Democrats don't want to cut anything - except defense spending, of course, but don't call them unpatriotic! - they just want to raise taxes on "the rich" and "corporations." They don't say that, of course, because they know they would be thrown bodily out of office. So instead, they offer all sorts of hedges and rhetorical feints and claims like "I was wrong about what I said about the debt limit back when George Bush was president." It's those sorts of fine toned pronouncements that gain Democrats their reputation for "nuance" and "precision" - and would be labeled "flip flopping" or "lying" if a Republican dared to try the same.

Oh, and last week, the only major national Republican politician who was out there criticizing the deal was Sarah Palin who declared the deal to be wholly inadequate. I keep reading about how Palin is in decline because, like, her daughter was on Dancing With The Stars. But her philosophy certainly remains robust. Too bad we can't say the same for other elements of the GOP leadership.

Not sure if there's any point in blowing up the deal at this point. There are bigger battles coming up. But, so far we haven't seen much to suggest that those battles will come to a satisfying end.

UPDATE: I thought made a mistake and wrote "$14 million" instead of "billion" in the opening paragraph, but actually I was ahead of the curve. The (all bow) CBO says the actual cuts amount to a little over $352 million. That's "million" with an "M."

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