Republican Study Committee Gets Specific

Reporters grapple with complexities

The Republican Study Committee—a conservative committee which includes about three quarters of the Republican House conference—released a plan yesterday that, lo and behold, attached some actual touch-and-feel-em concrete ideas to the party’s plan to “slash” and “cut” federal discretionary spending. The plan calls for $2.5 trillion in cuts over ten years (not touching the military, Medicare, or Social Security), a deep incision they say will be achieved by reducing non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels for the rest of 2011, and to 2006 levels thereafter. The proposal, put forward yesterday in a press conference by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the study committee, and others, is both more specific and tougher than commitments previously put out by the House leadership: an immediate cut of $100 billion compared to the (up to) $80 billion that leaders are seeking.

It’s full of specific proposals, which led the Post’s Ezra Klein to call it “a healthy document” the Dems are likely to be “interested in debating.” Dave Weigel at Slate—who declares “You can stop needling Republicans about what programs they want to cut now”—has a nice highlights reel of specific cuts the study committee is proposing:

The proposal does what Republicans have been talking about for two years—“repeal” of remaining stimulus funds (now $45 billion), privatizing Fannie and Freddie ($30 billion), repealing Medicaid’ FMAP increase ($16.1 billion), and what they estimate at $330 billion in discretionary spending cuts. Highlights of these projected annual savings:

- Cutting the federal workforce by 15 percent through attrition, and do this by allowing only one new federal worker for every two who quit.

- Killing the “fund for Obamacare administrative costs” for $900 million

- Ending Amtrak subsidies for $1.565 billion

- Ending intercity and high speed rail grants for $2.5 billion

- Repealing Davis-Bacon for $1 billion

- Cutting annual general assistance to the District of Columbia by $210 million, and cutting the subsidy for DC’s transit authority by $150 million.

There are a number of issues for reporters to tease out here. First, it’s a complicated development for the non-wonk—explaining what exactly non-security discretionary spending is is a task, as is outlining where the cuts would occur, and what the impact of those cuts might be. And wise reporters have noted that although more specific than other statements and documents that have come before it, the new plans to cut to 2006 levels in 2012 are largely free of the kind of specifics you see above.

Second, it’s a complex political issue. Not just because a bill which carried all of these cuts would have little chance of passing in the Democratic senate, but because it sets up for a potential internal struggle between more conservative Tea Party segments of the Republican conference and the party’s leaders, who’ve proposed more modest cuts. The complexity here is in drawing attention to that difference without overstating it. So far, GOP House Leaders and figureheads of the new “cut deeper” crowd have played nice, publicly at least. This fight seems more expected than in progress. But it’s brewing.

In a Times front-page story today which calls the measures “drastic,” David M. Herszenhorn effectively spells out the internal political problems the plan might pose.

Even before the midterm elections, party leaders issued a “Pledge to America,” promising, without providing details of which programs would be cut, to reduce nonsecurity discretionary spending to 2008 levels, a cut that Mr. Boehner had initially pegged at about $100 billion for this fiscal year.

But with a temporary spending measure in place until early March — more than five months into the fiscal year — Republican leaders, including the Budget Committee chairman, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, have said that a more realistic goal would be cuts to 2008 levels prorated for the remainder of the fiscal year, or about $60 billion to $80 billion.

And then.

Conservative lawmakers, however, said that was not enough.

“Speaking with many of my freshmen colleagues, for us, myself included, the pledge, the $100 billion, was simply a start; it was simply a floor,” Mr. Mulvaney, the South Carolina freshman, said at a news conference to unveil the study committee’s proposal. He added: “Anybody who is up to speed on budget issues should be scared to death by what’s happening with the debt and the deficit in this country. If you’re not losing sleep over it, then you’re simply not paying attention.”

The Times piece is an effective lay-of-the-land deal and provides a timeframe for when we can expect the debate over spending cuts to really come to the fore in Congress—a vote on a resolution that will direct Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan to set spending at 2008 levels is schedules for Tuesday. (Interestingly, it’s just been announced that Ryan will be delivering the GOP’s State of the Union response.)

The Post’s own story on the proposal is much more direct in drawing battle lines within the Republican party. Reporter Lori Montgomery leads with this:

Congressional conservatives on Thursday demanded far more dramatic reductions in government spending than House GOP leaders have recently proposed, in the first sign of a fissure between old-guard Republicans and tea-party-backed newcomers.

And then cites evidence of the fissure:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is empowered by new House rules to unilaterally set a limit on spending, has said he plans to direct appropriators to slice only about $60 billion from this year’s budget. The House Appropriations Committee is identifying cuts at that level.

But dissatisfaction with that approach erupted Wednesday, when the House Rules Committee began considering a largely symbolic measure aimed at reaffirming the commitment to reduce spending. Freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) insisted on changing the language to require faster and deeper cuts than Ryan has proposed. The full House is set to vote on the measure Tuesday, hours before President Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

Both pieces are decent all-inclusive reads—the Post’s feels the more comprehensive and aggressive (see: “erupted”)—but neither really gets at what the full impact of some of these cuts would be. And really, in an issue like this, that should come first. What I am interested in as much as the politics is the impact of the policy, something given shorter shrift in these two reports. Here are some specific GOP suggestions; let’s get specific on what they would mean.

For that, Slate’s Weigel is a good place to start. He lists, as above, some of the most interesting proposals. Talking Points Memo has posted the report (its brevity probably a big selling point to those who complained about the heft of the Affordable Health Care Act). And TPM’s Brian Beutler’s has an excellent look at some of the specifics: if X were to be cut by the suggested Y, Z would happen. Here are two examples:

Also on the RSC’s chopping block: the Legal Services Corporation, which is the federal organization that provides civil legal assistance to people who make up to 125 percent of the federal poverty line. The RSC says that eliminating the LSC would save $420 million—and the predominately low-income women currently served by the program would have to look elsewhere for assistance filing for help in domestic abuse cases and resolving custody issues (about 35 percent of its cases), in foreclosure or eviction disputes (25 percent of their cases) or even filing for bankruptcy.

They also want to eliminate Amtrak operating subsidies ($1.565 billion), which amounted to $32 per passenger in 2009. In 2009, 41 of Amtrak’s 44 routes—which service 500 destinations in 46 states—lost money, indicating that, without the subsidies, Amtrak would have to significantly reduce or eliminate its service outside the heavily trafficked urban coastal routes. The plans also call for the elimination of Intercity and High Speed Rail Grants to the tune of $2.5 billion a year.

Firedoglake points out that, as mentioned above, the document might not be as concrete as it as being touted to be. David Dayen points to a question Weigel asked at the announcement before ruminating on the true value of this document, which may not be its actual proposals:

When asked by Dave Weigel how many jobs would be eliminated by cutting funding to these priorities, head of the Republican Study Committee and future high school football assistant coach Jim Jordan (R-OH) said, “We think if you reduce federal government spending, you actually create jobs.” It must comfort him at night. It’s based on nothing, but it must make it easier to sleep. Talking point Ny-Quil.

While the above cuts are actually identified (the full list is here), the cap on discretionary spending at 2006 levels is mostly just assumed, so once again we have this claim that we can “cut spending” without any sense of all that would have to be cut to meet the cap. Only $330 billion out of the $2.25 trillion in cuts have a specific named source. So again, Democrats trying to argue with this document are left to largely chase phantoms.

The value in this document is knowing that the battle lines have been drawn. Republicans in the House want $80 billion in cuts this year, and trillions over the next ten. Now it’s the President’s move. And the end of the continuing resolution on March 4, as well as the need to increase the debt limit, hang out there over the horizon.

I was particularly drawn to Bradford Plumer’s piece posted midnight yesterday, “The GOP’s Serious Budget Headache,” which sheds some interesting light on internal problems for the Republicans separate from the Tea Party vs. the Establishment story. Plumer gets very, well, specific.

Yet even the RSC was careful to tiptoe around the fate of more popular programs. (Pell Grants? Home heating-oil assistance?) And for good reason: Republicans may not lose sleep over scuttling, say, the union-friendly Bacon-Davis Act (an RSC proposal that would lead to $1 billion per year in savings). But what happens when NASA’s budget gets ripped apart? Republicans in Texas, Florida, and Alabama, where NASA offices and facilities are concentrated, may not be overly thrilled. Or how about when subsidies for flights to remote parts of the country get squeezed 30 percent? Rural lawmakers get ornery. Squabbles like these ended up sinking GOP attempts to cut spending in the early 2000s. As one former appropriations aide told FoxNews, “It’s the little stuff that everybody fights the hardest about.”

He then concludes with a nod to the potential for future internal conflict of the nature most are seeing bubbling up.

In other words, conservatives haven’t quite worked out all the kinks. And, in the meantime, Republican leaders haven’t figured out how to balance the zeal of their right flank with the headaches involved in getting those cuts to stick. Sure, Jordan said he was “optimistic” that the GOP leadership would take up the RSC’s recommendations, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor “applaud[ed]” the committee’s proposal. But, underneath all the happy accolades, there’s still plenty of room for ugliness.

We will be tuning in Tuesday to see specifics debated and (perhaps) fissures erupting.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,