Political Animal


October 15, 2012 3:28 PM Non-Defense Discretionary Blues

By Ed Kilgore

A lot of the trouble liberals (and the MSM) have had with getting a firm handle on Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s fiscal policies is that so much of them are buried in the non-highlighted and non-itemized portions of the federal budget: in particular, the “non-defense discretionary” spending that encompasses most of what the federal government does other than writing checks and fighting or preventing wars. And as Steve Rattner points out in a New York Times op-ed today, it’s Romney, not Ryan, who’s the most radical in this area, mainly because his budget blueprint (such as it is) insists on higher defense spending than does Ryan’s, adding to the fiscal squeeze:

Mr. Romney is calling for a huge increase in defense spending — roughly $2 trillion more over the next decade than Mr. Ryan wants to spend, which is only $400 billion above Mr. Obama’s budget — even though the military is not asking for such an increase. Such an increase would force giant reductions, about 40 percent, in everything that’s left.
“Everything else” isn’t some catchall of small items, like feeding Big Bird. We’re talking about a vast array of programs including civilian and military pensions, food stamps, unemployment and disability compensation, the earned income and child tax credits, family support and nutrition, K-12 education, transportation, public safety and disaster relief. And on and on.
All told, Mr. Romney would allocate $6.9 trillion for these items, compared with the $9.3 trillion proposed by his own running mate (and Mr. Obama’s $12 trillion, which itself represents a 9 percent reduction from current levels, after adjusting for inflation).
No doubt some of what is buried within “other mandatory and nondefense discretionary spending” can be eliminated. Perhaps Americans won’t miss a few national parks or the space program.
But also nestled within this category are critical outlays for investments in infrastructure and research.
Eating the seed corn is never advisable, yet that’s what Washington is already doing. The share of spending on infrastructure (roads, airports, dams and the like) fell from 2 percent of G.D.P. in 1971 to 1 percent in 2010.
More — not less — government money needs to be invested in these kinds of growth-generating projects (not to mention education and training).
I recognize that in the real world, cuts on the scale envisioned by Mr. Romney will prove politically untenable, which would force a President Romney to rethink his agenda.
But as a statement of intent, it’s Mr. Romney — not Mr. Ryan — who has produced the budget that would more dramatically reduce the services offered by government, and in ways that would shock and outrage most Americans. We can only hope that Mr. Obama will draw those contrasts clearly in the debate.

If I were advising the president, I’d suggest he use the town hall format to ask a participant to name a government function he or she valued that wasn’t defense, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid and then use that to dramatize Rattner’s point and force Romney to get more specific. You may recall the device that Bill Clinton and Al Gore used in 1996 when Republicans were similarly trying to obscure the consequences of their budget proposals: they talked about M2E2: Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment as categories of spending Republicans would not protect and Democrats would prioritize. It was very effective. There’s no reason on earth Barack Obama couldn’t come up with a similarly simple device tomorrow night. Mitt Romney should not be able to continue to pretend he can do all the things he’s promised to do and confine the damage to waste, fraud, abuse and Big Bird.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on October 15, 2012 3:41 PM:

    If Obama brings up the cuts, I expect Romney just to deny that they will take place. He'll deny it with the same plastic smile he used in the first debate. He'll lie 'presidentially' in a way that the pundits will applaud. That's my fear.

  • c u n d gulag on October 15, 2012 4:06 PM:

    Obama needs to bring out Mitt's hypcricy somehow.

    I'd ask Mitt, on the first question, "Well, who am I debating with this week? More Liberal than Teddy Kennedy when he ran for the Senate in MASSACHUSETTS, Romney, Moderate Mitt, the Governor of MASSACHUSETTS, or the Severely Conservative Mitt Romney from the primaries? Which one are you tonight, Mr. Romney? I'm ready for all of you. Now that you've apparently stopped debating yourself, lets see how you do tonight."

    And then I'd ask the nation, ala Uncle Joe, in the summary at the ends, "Ask yourselves folks, who do you trust more on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Services? And who do you trust more on foreign policy? Me, who ended one war, and is winding down another, who gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, or Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, didn't concern themselves with the mastermind behind 9/11, and who apparently think we need to put boots on the ground in Syria, maybe Libya, and start a war with Iran?"

  • c u n d gulag on October 15, 2012 4:11 PM:

    And while he's bringing up Mitt's "hypcicy," he might also consider exposing Mitt's 'HYPOCRISY!'


    Y kent oui haz "Edit?"

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 15, 2012 4:18 PM:

    I imagine that Romney believes more ruthlessly in this plan than does Ryan by virtue of his corporate raider background.

    This sounds like more of the government-is-business nonsense, that fails to take into account that America's business is America. A business can stop spending on providing a service and not be negatively impacted by that cutback. Of course, the customers can always find another business to provide that service. However, the government generally doesn't have the luxury of flexibility of what they can and cannot provide, at least without socking it to its citizens...

    I guess Romney presumes that when the government divest in providing non-discretionary services, private citizens will rush to fill in the gap... I have my doubts about that, since the most fervent free market capitalists are solely interested in enterprises that yield the highest rates of return with the least amount of investment, which often encourages being stingy as all hell with the service provided. Look at the example that private healthcare provides. At least with government provided services there's some sort of moral obligation to provide fair, quality service. Private companies just take your money and laugh at you for being a sucker because you didn't read the fine print...

  • bigtuna on October 15, 2012 4:33 PM:

    Here is one, of many, specifics, Mr. Obama. THe National Science Foundation, which funds much of the non-health related basic research in the US, has a budget of about 7.2 bn. It is one of the most well run agencies; it has a lean infrastructure and admin. costs; it passes muster with Congress, etc etc etc. THings that people do there, while basic, give rise to many many things down the road, not least of which is the educated workforce in the core sciences.

    And the success rate of some of the programs? 10%. And NSF has been running at 90% of last years budget amts, to be careful not to over spend. There is no way in hell that 90% of the projects that go to these programs do not deserve at least some funding. Maybe 70%; but you keep doing this, and the slow drip, drip, drip, of lost research; fewer students; poorer equipment, etc., eat into our future. Researchers routinely go to Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Taiwan, etc., to do things that we could, and should, do in the US.

    Republican budgets, to adhere to any cuts in taxes; increases in defense spending, and allegedely reduce the debt, must cut all these other elements of the budget, which is about 19% of the budget [ and which I think BHO himself wants to freeze at this level].

    NSF, Clean Water, Clean air; National Parks; safe food inspections; agricultural research; scholarships; water projects in arid western states; timber management in forested states; export programs for various industries; new trails; boat docks; wildlife management programs; crime reduction spending; roads; bridges; water lines; traffic safety; health inspections of hospitals to reduce infections in patients, etc,,, all need upgrades, and new ones, built to manage the population growth of the US.

    The Am. Society of Civil Engineers estimates someting like a $2T backlog of infrastructure; assume they over estimate in self interest; assume a $1T backlong. ARRA did piss all to work that off.

    We are a big sprawling country, wtih different people, different industries, and different ecosystems. In the past, we dealt with that by doing stuff and building big projects, and not whining about what cannot be done. We can never build roads like the do in Germany, but we can do better than what we have; THe federal government has to do this stuff; you cannot expect there to be 50 state food inspection systems; privatized water delivery from Lake Mead, etc etc etc. The Republican model is cut cut cut, rely on the private sector to solve a few problems. Ultimtely, this says F888 the rest.

    Hit them hard. on this. please.

  • Shelly on October 15, 2012 5:46 PM:

    He should mention the things that will really hit home: imagine no FDA (especially chilling with the meningitis outbreak, which is also a great point to use to tout the virtues of regulation); no FEMA; no CDC; no EPA (which most people do not want to eliminate, despite Republican protestations about job killing regulations); funds cut for air traffic controllers; crumbling infrastructure. It would also be good to mention things like radically slashed hours/facilities at national parks, radically slashed budgets for research, etc., but I think the factors that impact public safety are the ones to emphasize. (It's easy to hate government in theory but it suddenly becomes popular when it comes to actually protecting you.)

  • bigtuna on October 15, 2012 6:18 PM:

    Get some of the smart college kids on the various election staffs to find this kind of spending - - in Republican districts. Like Denny Rehberg of MT, or ND; N MI. Find the 20-30 Cong districts that migth be in play, or where a repub is fighting a challenger of some heft, AND the states where the repubs are on the edge: CT, MO, MT, ND - and find 4-5 specific exas. of NDFS that helps people/ public saftey, etc.

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