Paying for Katrina

PAYING FOR KATRINA….Is cutting pork out of the budget a good way of offsetting the cost of Hurricane Katrina? A couple of days ago I suggested a wholesale obliteration of earmarks in the recent highway bill, and the Porkbusters project attempts to take this even further ? though apparently it does this by using as its definition of pork, “any program I don’t like.”

Fair enough, I suppose, although as Chris Nolan points out, things like the proposed seismic retrofit of the Golden Gate Bridge are pretty defensible on the grounds that having the Golden Gate Bridge tumble into the sea would be a pretty bad thing for the entire country, not just the coddled masses of Marin County.

What’s more, as Mark Schmitt points out, even if you tally up everything on the Porkbusters list, it doesn’t add up to much. In fact, he approves of their efforts because he hopes “it will provide participants with an education in the actual insignificance of domestic discretionary spending.” He’s right. The “Big Four” ? Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, and interest on the national debt ? account for about two-thirds of the federal budget, and in practical terms they just aren’t going to get cut in the near term. It’s not impossible to find cuts in the remaining third of the budget, of course, but it’s mostly small stuff ? and as the chart on the right shows, discretionary domestic spending is hardly out of control anyway. It’s been declining for decades, and despite the best efforts of the Bush administration it’s lower today than it was 35 years ago. Unless you’re willing to take a huge axe to the social safety net and fess up that you just don’t care about the poor, it’s pretty hard for even a group of conservatives to agree on any significant cuts. (Though the same is not true of individuals, of course. All they have to do is recommend cuts in programs they don’t personally care about and presto! All done!)

The bottom line is simple: as much as we’re all in favor of cutting unnecessary spending, spending is just not a big problem right now. The simple fact is that total federal spending is about 20% of GDP, the same as it was 30 years ago.

Thanks to George Bush’s tax cuts, however, revenues are lower than they’ve been since the 1950s. So if you’re really serious about paying for Katrina reconstruction, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the answer: repeal of a pair of tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in January that are aimed exclusively at families with high incomes (97% of the benefit goes to families with incomes over $200,000). What’s more, this windfall is solely a creature of Congress. President Bush never asked for it.

Well off families have already gotten plenty of tax cuts in the past four years. They can do without another one, and repealing these two measures would save an estimated $197 billion. It’s not a tax increase, since it would leave current law just as it is, and it would save enough to pay for Katrina without blowing an even bigger hole in the budget than we already have. Responsible conservatives should give this their blessing.