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March 04, 2013 9:43 AM The “Scandal” of Current Services Budgeting

By Ed Kilgore

One of the ubiquitous but little-discussed problems at the heart of the endless fiscal debate in Washington is that progressives and conservatives have a very different way of defining “budget cuts.” The former (along with such institutions as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget) identify as “baseline” spending those expenditures necessary to maintain current services, which means adjustments are made to reflect inflation, and in the case of entitlement programs, “caseload growth’ caused by a higher eligible population (attributable either to population growth or to changes in circumstances that make more people eligible). From this perspective, even if absolute spending goes up, so long as actual services or benefits are cut, or people lose eligibility, that’s a “cut” since that is how it affects real people in the real world. Conversely, automatic or COLA adjustments aren’t “budget increases,” since it’s just more money for the same stuff.

To many conservatives, this way of thinking is a horrific scam and scandal, a deliberate lie intended to make government grow perpetually. Indeed, some think it’s the only reason Democrats ever win budget fights or elections. Here’s pollster Scott Rasmussen just today whining about it:

To most Americans, maintaining spending at current levels would mean spending the same amount in 2013 as we spent in 2012. However, to those experienced in the mysterious ways of Washington, maintaining spending at current levels means spending $3.5 trillion this year and $4.5 trillion in five years. To most Americans, that’s a trillion dollars in spending growth.
The Political Class, on the other hand, would consider holding spending unchanged at current levels to be a massive spending cut. Why? Because it wouldn’t allow for the trillion dollar spending growth that is already built into the budget.

I don’t know what’s so mysterious about the concept of regarding an action as a “budget cut” if reduces the amount of stuff that can be bought in a particular budget category, or throws people otherwise eligible for existing benefits out on the street. In the area where this kind of adjustment matters most, health care, “spending the same amount” from year to year would very, very quickly shrink Medicare and Medicaid into programs covering far fewer people and/or providing far fewer services. What’s so “honest” about denying that?

So next time you read or hear some hammer-headed conservative complaint about “smaller budget increases being called budget cuts,” the question to ask is: What stuff is somebody going to be denied to keep spending at the level you are demanding? Which people are going to be denied services they had yesterday? Are you going to tell them it’s “not a budget cut?”

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.

Comments

  • boatboy_srq on March 04, 2013 9:57 AM:

    To most Americans, maintaining spending at current levels would mean spending the same amount in 2013 as we spent in 2012. However, to those experienced in the mysterious ways of Washington, maintaining spending at current levels means spending $3.5 trillion this year and $4.5 trillion in five years. To most Americans, thatís a trillion dollars in spending growth.

    We need to remind conservatists of this interesting little phenomenon called inflation. Either that, or have them show us where in the US they can still find a Coke for 5 cents, gas at 25 cents a gallon and a new Chevy for $400.

    Captcha: land bolloca. Conservatist thougth is, indeed, bollocks.

  • c u n d gulag on March 04, 2013 10:03 AM:

    What always amazing to me, is the complete lack of any historical perspective in Conservatives.

    The economy today is not the same as it was in 2006.
    Or in 1999.
    Or in 1981.
    Or, back in the late 60's, when, arguably, America was at its peak.

    Sh*t happens.
    Governments were a human creation to help groups of humans when sh*t happens.

    We are in a huge economic downturn, mostly the fault of decades of Conservative economic theories being put to the test.
    But Conservatives don't see that as a reason to change their Conservative economic theories.
    NO!
    They see that as a time to double-down on the very economic Conservative policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

    Like compulsive gamblers, they figure that THIS time, they're sure to win!

    But for too many of the idiots who are Conservatives, what they see as their "win," is just to lose less than the colored folks down the road.

    But hey, a win's a win! Right, "Morans?"

  • Peter C on March 04, 2013 10:05 AM:

    You can tell they are being disengenuous because they hold the exact opposite opinion when it come to defense.

  • Rick B on March 04, 2013 10:15 AM:

    Chris Hayes and his panel on "Up with Chris Hayes" this weekend made it very clear that the crap Ed discussed above is not stupidity on the part of conservatives. It is propaganda they use to argue to cut government without directly saying what they want to do.

    It's my opinion that the entire "conservative agenda" consists of propaganda crap of this type. They will continue to use this form of propaganda lie as long as a Democrat is President and there are Democrats with power in Congress, but give power back to the conservatives and they will immediately to the free-spending ways of the Bush administration combined with their typical criminal crony capitalism raids on the public funds by private so-called business persons like Corrections Corp.

  • Doug on March 04, 2013 5:18 PM:

    So, Rassie can't tell the differences between providing the amount necessary to accomplish the task set forth in a specific piece of legislation (which include variables based on economic conditions, etc), increased costs due to inflation or increasing spending by expanding the reach of that piece of legislation?
    How...how...how Republican of him!
    Also helps to explain some of the "problems" they were having with polling...