Obama got rolled — or did he?

OBAMA GOT ROLLED — OR DID HE?…. Today is the first day we’ve been able to get a good look at exactly what spending cuts are included in the new budget deal. We’ve been working with the larger, top-line numbers since late last week, but without a sense of what the specific cuts are going to be.

Some of the reductions, especially in areas like infrastructure and environmental protections, are clearly misguided, and would never have been made had voters not elected a Republican House. We’re talking about cuts that are going to hurt; there’s no way around that.

But Tim Fernholz notes that finding nearly $40 billion in cuts proved difficult, leading to a reliance on “clever accounting” that makes the package of cuts look bigger than it is.

For example, the final cuts in the deal are advertised as $38.5 billion less than was appropriated in 2010, but after removing rescissions, cuts to reserve funds, and reductions in mandatory spending programs, discretionary spending will be reduced only by $14.7 billion.

White House officials said throughout the process that the composition of the cuts was more important than the top-line number, and that including mandatory cuts allowed that top line to grow while limiting the immediate impact of the cuts.

The move also keeps the 2011 discretionary baseline slightly higher, a terrain advantage for the Democrats heading into the 2012 spending process.

So, does this mean the actual budget cuts won’t be quite as brutal as we thought when the deal was struck on Friday night? Actually, yes, that’s pretty much what it means. The AP’s report echoes this point.

A close look at the government shutdown-dodging agreement to cut federal spending by $38 billion reveals that lawmakers significantly eased the fiscal pain by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs President Barack Obama had targeted anyway.

[T]he cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including cuts to earmarks, unspent census money, leftover federal construction funding, and $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can’t be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation. Another $3.5 billion comes from unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.

It turns out, a lot of the cuts related to money that wasn’t going to be spent (leftover Census money, for example), eliminating programs that were set to expire, and not repeating expenditures intended to be one-time infusions anyway.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the assumption that the Obama White House got rolled.