The big freeze

THE BIG FREEZE…. I don’t doubt that spending freezes poll well. A lot of Americans, perhaps even a healthy majority, are convinced that “big government spends too much money.” There’s a perception, fed by the media and Republicans, that things — the deficit, the size of the budget — have gotten “out of control.” For all I know, President Obama’s intention to call for a three-year freeze will make independents and centrists swoon.

But that doesn’t make this a good idea.

President Obama will call for a three-year freeze in spending on many domestic programs, and for increases no greater than inflation after that, an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit, administration officials said Monday. […]

The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, including air traffic control, farm subsidies, education, nutrition and national parks.

But it would exempt security-related budgets for the Pentagon, foreign aid, the Veterans Administration and homeland security, as well as the entitlement programs that make up the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The freeze intends to save $250 billion over 10 years.

Now, talk of spending freezes is not new. During the 2008 presidential campaign, it was one of the centerpieces of John McCain’s campaign. A year later, it was the official Republican plan to deal with the financial crisis. Now, at least rhetorically, it’s President Obama — you know, the “radical socialist” — who’s waving the banner.

Though, in fairness, it’s not quite the same thing. GOP freezes were across-the-board hatchet jobs, while administration officials are insisting the White House is eyeing a “surgical” freeze. Indeed, as part of the proposed freeze, the administration intends to increase some budgets while cutting others, which raises the question of whether this is really a “freeze” at all.

It’s a cliche, but “the devil is in the details” certainly applies here. We’ve been told that the freeze would not only exclude defense and national security, but also economic recovery investment and health care reform (should it happen). The new jobs bill is still moving forward, too.

Indeed, while we wait for additional details — an administration official said the cuts would target “duplicative,” “ineffective,” and “inefficient” spending — I’m tempted to call the freeze idea symbolic, at best. In President Obama’s first budget proposed cutting $11.5 billion in spending, and most of the cuts were approved by Congress. This next budget, including the freeze, is eyeing reductions between $10 billion to $15 billion.

So, if the proposal isn’t really going to change much, why is this disappointing? Because it fully embraces the conservative narrative, instead of using the power of the bully pulpit to explain why conservatives have it wrong.

It may be even worse as a policy matter — we just don’t have enough details to say — but that’s distressing enough.