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What Are The House Republicans Talking About?

When we last left Boehner et al, they were unveiling an alternative to Obama's budget without any, you know, numbers. Now they're finally releasing their deficit-reduction plans, and the good news is that there are some actual numbers involved. (Sorta.) The bad news (or the additional good news if you're a Democratic operative) is that the numbers are ridiculous.

According to the press release on the site, Republicans are proposing "in excess of" $375 billion in cuts over five years. But the bulk of the savings--about $317 billion--comes from vague "discretionary spending limits," which amounts to saying you promise to cut spending by ... promising to cut spending. There isn't a single detail about what programs would be cut to get to that $317 billion figure--in fact, even though this item accounts for the vast majority of money saved, it takes up exactly two paragraphs in the 20-page document outlining the GOP's plan. Here's the more important of the two:

While many Republicans favor an immediate cut or freeze in non-defense discretionary spending, given the current deficit, both parties ought to be able to agree at a minimum to impose discretionary spending limits that provide that non-defense discretionary spending will grow at a level not exceeding inflation. Such a limit would produce considerable savings compared to the Administration’s budget. In fact, such a change would save $317 billion over the next five years compared to the budget submitted by the Administration.

Brilliant stuff.

But it gets better. The next largest amount--$45 billion in savings--comes from taking whatever bailout money the banks repay and using it to fund deficit reduction rather than additional bailouts. Sounds like a great idea--except that the administration's budget already accounts for these savings. That is, the budget already assumes the repaid bailout money will go right back into the government's coffers, so all the deficit-reduction we're going to get out of bailout repayments has already been accounted for. (Unless we end up with more repayments than we expect, in which case the administration will presumably treat those funds the same way.)

Once you strip these things out, you're left with a grand total of about $20-$25 billion in proposed cuts over 5 years.* Which isn't nothing, I guess. But probably a little less than you'd expect from the people who, when Obama proposed $17 billion in one-year cuts back in May, harrumphed, "While we appreciate the newfound attention to saving taxpayer dollars from this administration, we respectfully suggest that we should do far more." Hmm...  

--Noam Scheiber

*You're actually left with $13 billion if you start with the $375 billion figure and strip out these phantom savings. But if you take everything in the GOP document at face value, the total proposed cuts are closer to $385 billion, which is the figure we should probably subtract from.