Boehner's Spending and Debt Promise

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House Speaker John Boehner has promised to tie substantial spending cuts to upcoming debt-limit legislation. He said spending cuts will have to be at least as large as the dollar value of the allowed debt increase. Thus, if the legislation increased the legal debt limit by $2 trillion, then Congress would have to cut spending over time by at least $2 trillion.

How can we be sure that spending cuts are real?

There are only two types of solid and tough-to-reverse spending cuts—legislated changes to reduce entitlement benefit levels and complete termination of discretionary programs. Republicans will have to define what time period they are talking about, but let’s assume it’s the standard 10-year budget window.

Entitlements: The legislation, for example, could change the indexing formula for initial Social Security benefits from wages to prices. The Congressional Budget Office says that change would reduce spending by $137 billion over 10 years (2012-2021). Other options include raising the retirement age for Social Security and raising deductibles for Medicare.

Discretionary: Each session of Congress decides the following year’s discretionary spending. Promises of discretionary spending cuts beyond one year are meaningless. Thus, the various promises in Republican and Democratic budget plans to freeze various parts of discretionary spending through 2021 or reduce spending to 2008 levels over the long term have no weight. Those are not real cuts.

The only way to get real cuts in discretionary spending—cuts that would be tough to reverse out in later years—is complete program termination and repeal of the program’s authorization. That way, policymakers in future years would generally need at least 60 votes in the Senate to reinstate the spending.

Thus, if the GOP promises to save $50 billion over 10 years by reducing the levels of Title 1 grants to the states for K-12 schools, that is not a real and solid cut. However, if they pass a law to repeal Title 1 spending altogether, that cut may well be sustained over the long term.

To make spending cuts even more secure, the GOP should also insist on a statutory cap on overall outlays with a supermajority requirement to break, as I’ve outlined here. For program termination ideas, see www.DownsizingGovernment.org.

In sum, the GOP needs to ensure that spending cuts tied to the debt-limit vote are either:

  1. Changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefit levels, or
  2. Discretionary program terminations.

Promises to hold down future discretionary spending levels and partial program trims are not real spending cuts.