When is a freeze not a freeze?

WHEN IS A FREEZE NOT A FREEZE?…. Following up on his much-discussed interview with Rachel Maddow last night, Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Biden, has an item on the White House blog this afternoon. You can probably guess the subject.

As part of an explanation about the spending freeze, Bernstein emphasizes that “no one [at the White House] is arguing that we should take our foot off the accelerator today, when the economic recovery remains fragile and job growth has yet to return.” That’s good to know.

So, what’s the plan here?

[T]here are two ways to do a freeze like this: (1) an across-the-board freeze on every program outside of national security; and (2) a surgical approach where overall totals are frozen but some individual programs go up and others go down. In short, a hatchet versus a scalpel.

During the campaign, you may recall that John McCain touted option 1 — the hatchet approach of an across-the-board freeze.

The President was critical of that approach then, and we would be critical of it now. It’s not what we’re proposing. To the contrary, the entire theory of the President’s proposed freeze is to dial up the stuff that will support job growth and innovation while dialing down the stuff that doesn’t. Under our plan, some discretionary spending will go up; some will go down. That’s a big difference from a hatchet.

I guess the problem is that policy-focused Americans woke up yesterday with a rather unambiguous understanding of what a “spending freeze” is — funding for programs stay at their current levels, even if they were supposed to get more, even if economic conditions dictate that they should get more.

What the White House is effectively saying is, “No, no, that’s the old definition. Under the new spending freeze, some worthwhile investments will go up, and some wasteful ones will go down.” Indeed, in his post today, Bernstein highlights the need for additional “investments in clean energy, health care, and education that will ensure that the next economic expansion is characterized by broadly shared prosperity.”

The moment the discussion starts parsing the meaning of the word “freeze,” it gets a little mind-numbing, I suppose the key takeaway here is that the White House is looking for some kind of overall spending cap on discretionary spending not related to national security, which is flexible enough to let the administration direct more funding to some programs, and less funding to others. Officials are calling this a “freeze.”

And why, exactly, would the administration call this a “freeze,” if it doesn’t seem to be a “freeze”? Probably because officials see the polls, and believe the country is looking for assurances that the White House is taking fiscal responsibility seriously. “Freeze” is basically serving as some kind of shorthand.

But when we get past the rhetoric, we’re still talking about a White House budget that sought to cut $11.5 billion in spending from the last budget, and will try to cut $15 billion from the new budget.