Budget

Is the GOP Getting Serious About Spending Cuts?

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After a year or so of warning that the defense spending reductions scheduled to occur as a result of the sequestration process the followed from 2011 debt ceiling deal were just too dangerous to our nation's safety and economic security, Republican legislators in Congress have come around to a new perspective.

Sure, they say, the combination of defense and discretionary spending reductions in the sequester aren't ideal, but they're better than nothing. We'll take what we can get.

That's a real change in the party line. Last summer, GOP House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan could be found telling rally-goers on the campaign trail that Republicans were going to have to "protect jobs in Virginia and America" by dealing with the "devastating defense cuts president Obama is promising." Now Ryan is saying that Republicans are ready to let the full $1.2 trillion sequester, which is divided roughly evenly between defense and discretionary cuts, go through. "We think these sequesters will happen because the Democrats have opposed our efforts to replace those cuts with others and they've offered no alternatives," Rep. Ryan said on Meet the Press.

He's not the only Republican singing this tune. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told National Journal last week that "the only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester. We have got to hit those budget targets….If we can do it another way, fine, but if not, we've got to have that hammer." In the FT Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said that allowing sequestration to occur "is a much better outcome than suspending or eliminating the sequestration, so if that's what has to happen, so be it."

So is this a sign that the GOP is finally getting serious about spending cuts? I'd say it's a start—and encouraging mostly for what it says about the GOP's longstanding insistence that defense spending can never, ever be reduced.

But it's only a start. And as much as anything, it's a sign of how warped Washington's conversation about spending cuts has become.

You can learn plenty about the depressing politics of federal spending just from looking at the way that coverage of the sequester describes the cuts.

National Journal's piece describes that sequester reductions as "once unthinkable, draconian cuts." A Washington Post report on how the sequester might affect federal agencies describes the $85 billion in reductions scheduled to hit next year as "drastic."

Just so we're clear, here's an idea of what those drastic "cuts" could look like through the beginning of the next decade:

The $1.2 trillion sequester wouldn't actually cut spending over the next several years. It would simply let spending grow less rapidly than previously planned. Despite being subject to the biggest reduction, defense spending—which, it should be noted, has already seen mammoth growth since 2001—would also continue to rise through the end of the decade.

(Both charts via Reason columnist and Mercatus Center Senior Fellow Veronique de Rugy.)

The Republican party's defense hawks had driven much of the opposition to the sequester, so the party's newfound acceptance of the spending reductions can perhaps be understood as a message to its military Keynesians that they're not always going to get everything they want. There's long been tension in the party between the budget cutters and the defense hawks, and those who favor spending restraint that doesn't exclude the Pentagon budget have typically lost. If the GOP makes a stand on sequestration, that won't be the case this time.

But whether or not this is a real turning point in the GOP's attitude the defense budget remains to be seen. You can imagine this as a possible turning point, in which much of the party begins to accept that defense spending restraint has to be part of any effort to reduce federal spending. But you can also envision it as a one-time deal that the party backs away from in coming years.

Because the bigger worry with the sequester cuts isn't that they're too large or too harsh. It's that Congress might not stick to them. A similar sequestration effort in the late 1980s failed when, after just a few years, Congress began to alter and then ignore the spending targets. Indeed, pretty much every major budget deal in the modern era has failed to be implemented as planned thanks to Congress deciding to go a different direction. If Republicans are really serious about cutting federal spending, or even reducing its growth, they'll have to do more than support the sequester now. They'll have to figure out how to stick to it in the long run.