Or, A Case Study of How Government Bureaucracies Defend Themselves Against
Spending Cuts Reductions in Spending Increases
Yesterday's White House press conference featured the President of the United States speaking a bald-faced lie to the nation, capping off several months of over-the-top apocalyptic rhetoric from both the Obama administration and their erstwhile Republican opponents about the sequestration cuts.
First, as the President says, let's be clear: these "cuts" do not actually reduce federal spending (see Summary Table 1), which will continue to grow across the board. Even Think Progress was forced to admit this in the middle of their anti-Republican rhetoric:
Think Progress[/url]]3. The federal spending will still be higher next year. This claim is technically true, but only because the sequester target the growth of government programs: they will grow at a slower pace as a result of the spending reductions. This is simply how federal budgeting works. The sequester will reduce spending as percentage of the economy, lowering discretionary spending to historic lows.
They're right, of course - that is how federal budgeting works: under the assumption of constant, relentless increase, regardless of economic growth (or shrinkage). That's how federal government spending has doubled in the last ten years, far outpacing inflation and revenue. A chart from the Cato Institute shows just how preposterously tiny these reductions are in comparison to the total federal budget, and how little they affect its long-term growth:
Further examples of ... lets call it rhetorical overreach:
Embarrassingly, this coordinated all-out effort to scare people into opposing the sequester has resulted in most people either supporting the cuts or simply having no opinion. And Secretary Hagel's response to his predecessor's rhetoric on defense cuts points the way to what is really going to happen: nothing. Six months from now, these cuts will either be swept away by spending increases or simply ignored as inconsequential.
What this episode really highlights is how the federal bureaucracy defends itself from actual cuts, regardless of who is in charge or who has the political advantage. As usual, the entire framing of the argument is over a reduction in planned spending - not real cuts to total spending. The only reason some budgets are going slightly down in real terms is because the real elephants, entitlements, are immune to the so-called across-the-board cuts and continue to grow out of control. It also shows how really difficult it would be, even with popular support, to actually reduce the size of the federal government: all of government and most of both parties will reflexively oppose it. I can only expect that the real cuts - or just spending freezes - required to make the government solvent again would result in accusations of cannibalism or worse.