How to downsize the federal government

Bill Weckesser
Maybe Republicans need go back to the Gipper's playbook on the deficit.  Reagan once said, "I'm not worried the deficit.  It's big enough to take care of itself."  He certainly had a point.  Reagan was charged with massively increasing spending and borrowing on defense so that liberals would be sort of handcuffed from any big new spending programs for a while.  And, arguably, for a while it may have worked.

Now the New York Times laments-in an article I found at CNBC-that instead of defense,  entitlements are swallowing all the money.

Consider the president's budget, which by law must include projections of taxing and spending over the next decade. Loath to raise taxes on the middle class yet unwilling to cut deeply into the budgets for Social Security or Medicare, the president and his advisers proposed cutting the discretionary part of the budget devoted to everything except defense and other security agencies to 1.7 percent of economic output by 2022, down from 3.1 percent last year.

This is not irrelevant spending. It accounts for every government expenditure except entitlements, security and interest. It pays subsidies for higher education and housing assistance for the poor. It finances the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. It pays for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and training programs for unemployed workers. Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side.

House Republicans are equally if not more frugal. The House budget resolution, the Republicans' last detailed proposal about taxes and spending, refers to discretionary spending except national defense, a broader category than that considered in the president's budget. They too cut it to the bone: to about 2.1 percent of economic output in 2022, from 4.3 percent last year.

To put it in perspective, this would cut the government's civilian discretionary budget to the smallest it has been as a share of the economy at least since the Eisenhower administration -- when a quarter of the population lived under the poverty line, thousands of children still contracted polio each year and fewer than one in 12 Americans older than 25 had a college degree. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, even going over the so-called fiscal cliff would not cut it as deeply.

Hey, the Eisenhower years weren't so bad.  This could be a road back.

Conservatives need to turn the table on the debate.  Instead of arguing that entitlements will soon swallow everything else, so let's cut them, let's work on cutting all the rest.  House republicans should consider making every cut a tradeoff versus cutting  Social Security/Medicare.  For instance, either downsize the EPA...or cut Social Security/Medicare.  Reduce the Energy department...or reduce Social Security/Medicare.  Scale back the Department of Education...or trim Social Security/Medicare.  The list is endless.   A lot of Americans have more affection for Social Security/Medicare than any government agency.  This could be a stealth way to pursue some healthy de-regulation.  Would this meaningfully reduce the deficit?  Of course not.

But, to paraphrase Reagan, "entitlements are a big enough problem to take care of themselves."  In the meantime, maybe conservatives can win some other battles.

Maybe Republicans need go back to the Gipper's playbook on the deficit.  Reagan once said, "I'm not worried the deficit.  It's big enough to take care of itself."  He certainly had a point.  Reagan was charged with massively increasing spending and borrowing on defense so that liberals would be sort of handcuffed from any big new spending programs for a while.  And, arguably, for a while it may have worked.

Now the New York Times laments-in an article I found at CNBC-that instead of defense,  entitlements are swallowing all the money.

Consider the president's budget, which by law must include projections of taxing and spending over the next decade. Loath to raise taxes on the middle class yet unwilling to cut deeply into the budgets for Social Security or Medicare, the president and his advisers proposed cutting the discretionary part of the budget devoted to everything except defense and other security agencies to 1.7 percent of economic output by 2022, down from 3.1 percent last year.

This is not irrelevant spending. It accounts for every government expenditure except entitlements, security and interest. It pays subsidies for higher education and housing assistance for the poor. It finances the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. It pays for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and training programs for unemployed workers. Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side.

House Republicans are equally if not more frugal. The House budget resolution, the Republicans' last detailed proposal about taxes and spending, refers to discretionary spending except national defense, a broader category than that considered in the president's budget. They too cut it to the bone: to about 2.1 percent of economic output in 2022, from 4.3 percent last year.

To put it in perspective, this would cut the government's civilian discretionary budget to the smallest it has been as a share of the economy at least since the Eisenhower administration -- when a quarter of the population lived under the poverty line, thousands of children still contracted polio each year and fewer than one in 12 Americans older than 25 had a college degree. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, even going over the so-called fiscal cliff would not cut it as deeply.

Hey, the Eisenhower years weren't so bad.  This could be a road back.

Conservatives need to turn the table on the debate.  Instead of arguing that entitlements will soon swallow everything else, so let's cut them, let's work on cutting all the rest.  House republicans should consider making every cut a tradeoff versus cutting  Social Security/Medicare.  For instance, either downsize the EPA...or cut Social Security/Medicare.  Reduce the Energy department...or reduce Social Security/Medicare.  Scale back the Department of Education...or trim Social Security/Medicare.  The list is endless.   A lot of Americans have more affection for Social Security/Medicare than any government agency.  This could be a stealth way to pursue some healthy de-regulation.  Would this meaningfully reduce the deficit?  Of course not.

But, to paraphrase Reagan, "entitlements are a big enough problem to take care of themselves."  In the meantime, maybe conservatives can win some other battles.