The $100 Billion Question

Did Times fail to do initial reporting?

On the day the 112th Congress will be sworn in, reaction to a New York Times article revealing the House G.O.P. is backing off a promise to cut discretionary government spending by $100 billion has been twofold: disappointment from some libertarian corners and an unsurprised nod from Beltway types who saw the figure as far too ambitious from the outset. Our reaction: What about that Times article from the day before?

Times reporter Jackie Calmes put the $100 billion figure back in the headlines Tuesday with a front page report titled, “House GOP Sets Up Huge Target for Budget Ax.” The lede?

The incoming Republican majority in the House is moving to make good on its promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year, a goal eagerly backed by conservatives but one carrying substantial political and economic risks.

In that piece, Calmes wrote skeptically of the slashing commitment, made before the November midterms, noting that the cuts to federal programs including education and transportation “would be so deep—roughly 20 percent on average—that Senate Republicans have not joined the $100 billion pledge…” Calmes spoke to a number of realists from both sides of the aisle who saw the figure as too ambitious, too damaging, and too polarizing to have any chance of being signed into law. She wrote:

But if Republicans vote for the size and range of required cuts in education, law enforcement, medical and scientific research, transportation and much more, it would give Democrats political ammunition to use against them in swing districts.

Such reductions are sure to draw protests from governors and local officials, including Republicans, who are counting on federal money to help balance their budgets. Many business and farm groups likewise would oppose cuts in their subsidies. And many economists would argue that immediate federal spending cuts of this size, especially on top of cuts and layoffs in the cities and states, would threaten the economy’s recovery and offset any stimulus from the tax cut deal Republicans and Mr. Obama reached just weeks ago.

Then came today’s sequel, or rewrite: a Calmes report on page eleven titled “Republicans Lower Goal for Cuts to Budget.” It’s the piece drawing consternation from the far right and the libertarian set, and “I told you so”s from everyone else. The lede plays on the skepticism in Calmes’ day-old report, then adds a little something extra:

Many people knowledgeable about the federal budget said House Republicans could not keep their campaign promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending in a single year. Now it appears that Republicans agree.

Why the change in heart?

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

Reading the two reports side-by-side, day-after-day, the cynic might see today’s story as something of a do-over of yesterday’s. In the initial report, there is no evidence Calmes actually spoke to any House Republicans to verify that the $100 billion figure was still in play—she only mentions that the figure comes from comments Boehner made prior to the midterms. In today’s piece she is more explicit about the origins of the widely reported-on figure.

Republican leaders have repeatedly invoked the number. On Tuesday the Web site for Representative John A. Boehner, the incoming House speaker, included a link to his national radio address on the Saturday before the midterm elections, in which he said, “We’re ready to cut spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving roughly $100 billion almost immediately.”

Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who will become chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in December that the goal was to cut “a good $100 billion.” At issue is so-called discretionary domestic spending, which is about one-sixth of the federal budget and does not include the more expensive and fast-growing entitlement programs like Medicare.

But for today’s piece, Calmes went to Ryan himself for an update, or, at least, to his aides. They—perhaps having read yesterday’s story and wondering why they weren’t called (or why they didn’t respond to her calls)—then quash the story.

Now aides say that the $100 billion figure was hypothetical, and that the objective is to get annual spending for programs other than those for the military, veterans and domestic security back to the levels of 2008, before Democrats approved stimulus spending to end the recession.

…On Tuesday, aides to Mr. Ryan and Mr. Boehner blamed Democrats’ failure to pass the regular appropriations bills for fiscal year 2011 for forcing Republicans to reduce their goal to perhaps $50 billion to $60 billion. “House Republicans will continue to work to reduce spending for the final six months of this fiscal year — bringing nonsecurity discretionary spending back to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels — yielding taxpayers significant savings and starting a new era of cost cutting in Washington,” said Conor Sweeney, communications director for Mr. Ryan.

One is left with the impression that if Calmes had have done this reporting the day before—along with her very diligent reporting on the viability of the $100 billion goal—today’s correction story might not have been necessary.

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