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Standard and Poor

One of the most familiar rituals in George W. Bush’s Washington is the fantasizing that accompanies the president’s annual budget. The ritual goes something like this: Bush announces plans to cut a variety of domestic spending programs. Conservatives cheer the spirit of the cuts—even as they worry that they could be tough to implement or that they aren’t ambitious enough. Then, during the budget process, most of these cuts are restored—except those that affect the poor. And those cuts are too small to have any practical effect on the deficit. Which raises the question: At what point do conservatives acknowledge that their constant calls for spending restraint have real-world repercussions that are, to say the least, morally suspect? 

Last year’s budget debate provides a textbook example of this conservative kabuki. In February, Bush proposed a 1 percent cut in discretionary spending not related to security. After Hurricane Katrina and the disaster spending that followed, House conservatives demanded even greater cuts—some $500 billion over ten years to such wide-ranging programs as federal highways and the National Endowment for the Arts. But, wouldn’t you know it, of the $40 billion in savings over five years finally approved last Wednesday, the vast majority of cuts affect the poor, who will face higher premiums, among other things. The effect of these cuts on the deficit will, in turn, be offset by the $70 billion in tax cuts the GOP is likely to approve in coming weeks.

In fact, despite the administration’s best efforts to restrain nonsecurity domestic spending since 2002, it has nudged upward as a share of the economy. Once you factor in homeland security, domestic outlays have grown substantially. Pretty much the only spending ever actually excised is the relatively small fraction of the federal budget that directly benefits the poor. The reason for this is obvious. Everyone wants money spent on them, even if they support spending cuts in the abstract. Meanwhile, every constituency but the poor has the political heft to defend its largesse. Middle-class people vote in large enough numbers to scare off ax-wielding pols. Corporations contribute enough campaign money to ensure leniency. The defense industry has been untouchable since September 11. Only the poor have neither the votes nor the money to secure their goodies. The problem from the perspective of the budget-cutter is that, precisely because the poor aren’t a very powerful constituency, there isn’t much to take away in the first place.

But, if it’s no mystery why the poor consistently lose out, it is perplexing why conservative intellectuals continue to abet this process. One might think that, after four years in which the practical effect of all the calls for slashing domestic spending was significantly higher domestic spending combined with cuts that target the poor, conservatives might consider a new strategy to shrink government.

One would be wrong. As The Wall Street Journal’s editorialists rightly noted at the end of last year’s post-Katrina cutting frenzy, “The reality is that, over the next five years, the total federal budget is expected to exceed $13.855 trillion. The Republican faux-Slimfast plan basically erases the rounding error, or the $0.055 trillion, and leaves the $13.8 trillion untouched.” And yet the Journal’s response wasn’t to suggest forgoing the cuts; it was to imply that the poor were consuming more than their fair share of the budget, noting that Medicaid spending was slated to grow by “more than double the rate of inflation through 2011.” Left unmentioned was the fact that health care costs are growing at more than double the rate of inflation.

Even honest conservatives seem unable to appreciate the practical effects of their one-note calls for spending restraint. In an article last October, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru conceded that cutting discretionary programs was unlikely to reduce government spending in the long run, since Congress lacks the political will to make the cuts stick. He correctly noted that the real money is in entitlements—and that, if the GOP wants to control spending, it will eventually have to dismantle these programs. Yet, despite this analysis, Ponnuru recommended cuts in discretionary spending—the kinds of proposals that almost invariably result in cuts to the poor—as a useful first step.

The point isn’t simply that cuts for the poor aren’t sufficient to rein in spending. It’s that the cuts do serious damage to the people who depend on the axed programs even as they do nothing to advance the goal of fiscal restraint. If conservatives really want to single out the poor for punishment, they should say so explicitly. Until then, they should stop pretending their rhetoric on spending accomplishes anything else.

This article appeared in the February 20, 2006 issue of the magazine.