Largest Spending Cut Ever?

April 4, 2011

The Washington Post said today that a plan to “cut $33 billion from the federal budget” would be “the largest one-time reduction in U.S. history.”


The $33 billion in Democratic-proposed cuts are less than 1 percent of this year’s total spending, so we are considering very small cuts here. However, it is also true that Congress has been far more interested in growing spending than in cutting in recent decades. Still, the Washington Post said “in U.S. history,” which is a long time.

This federal budget table shows total federal spending since 1901. Total spending fell in 22 years out of the last 110 years. In 19 of those 22 years, spending was cut by more than 1 percent, or more than this year’s proposed Democratic cuts of $33 billion.

Indeed, even with $33 billion in cuts, total federal spending will still rise by more than $200 billion this year due to rising “entitlement” costs. And even in raw nominal dollars, the Washington Post isn’t correct because total federal spending fell $37 billion in 1946 and $61 billion in 2010.

We can also consider the $33 billion in proposed cuts within the applicable budget category–nondefense discretionary (NDD) spending. And we can adjust for inflation in order to fairly compare cuts in different time periods.

A $33 billion cut would reduce NDD this year by about 7 percent in constant dollars. This budget table shows that President Reagan and Congress cut NDD by 13 percent in 1982 in constant dollars.

So here is what we have discovered: Congress has reduced overall spending numerous times in the past; total spending will rise substantially this year even with proposed cuts; and Reagan cut nondefense discretionary spending more than the current $33 billion proposal would.

One year of small budget cuts won’t solve our fiscal problems. The budget-cutting drives of the early 1980s and mid-1990s made a bit of progress because they were sustained over a number of years while the economy boomed. Thus, the real challenge for Republicans will be whether they can follow up this year’s small cuts with much bigger cuts next year and beyond.

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