Fiscal Cliff

The President's Non-Specific Spending Cuts


At a White House press conference yesterday, President Obama touted his willingness to agree to tough spending cuts. "We have put forward real cuts in spending that are hard to do in every category," he said. If Republicans agree to a deal, "they can get some very meaningful spending cuts." 

Can spending reductions be both meaningful and non-specific? The problem is that president hasn't offered much detail when it comes to the sort of  spending reductions he'd accept. And despite the House Republicans' rhetorical focus on the need for significant spending cuts, they haven't offered much in the way of specifics either.

As The New York Times notes:

Despite the dueling news conferences and stream of well-rehearsed sound bites from the White House and Congress about the budget talks, one element is still largely missing from the debate: details about spending cuts.

Beyond numbers so large they are virtually meaningless to most Americans and a few specific proposals, like an adjustment to the Social Security formula, neither side has said much about how it wants to cut federal spending. Given that tax increases — the most discussed point of the negotiations — would by themselves only bring in a fraction of the $1.2 trillion in new revenue the president has called for, the omissions are all the more glaring.

At best, the White House has indicated some broad areas where it might be open to reduced spending:

The White House has proposed $800 billion in cuts. The president has said that half would come from federal health care programs; $200 billion from other so-called mandatory programs, like farm price supports that are not subject to annual Congressional spending bills; $100 billion from military spending; and $100 billion from domestic programs under Congress's annual discretion.

Democrats in Congress admit they don't even know what sort of details the White House actually favors:

For members of Congress not in the top ranks of leadership, there is one more reason not to talk in detail about cuts: Many of them do not know what exactly is happening in the negotiations.

"For us, we remain united behind the president," said Representative John B. Larson, Democrat of Connecticut, a member of the House's tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and one of the party's Congressional leaders. "Everybody is always concerned about the details of any proposal. But to be brutally honest, we don't have a whole lot of details to look at."

To be sure, Republicans aren't being particularly forthcoming with what they want. But if the president expects people to believe that he's willing to make hard choices involving meaningful, it would be nice for him to say what those cuts actually entail. The White House just spent much of an election cycle complaining that the GOP presidential nominee wasn't being forthcoming with policy specifics. Doesn't the president, who is actually in power and in a position to make meaningful policy decisions, have a responsibility to spell out what, exactly, he supports?