Non-Defense Discretionary Blues

A lot of the trouble liberals (and the MSM) have had with getting a firm handle on Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s fiscal policies is that so much of them are buried in the non-highlighted and non-itemized portions of the federal budget: in particular, the “non-defense discretionary” spending that encompasses most of what the federal government does other than writing checks and fighting or preventing wars. And as Steve Rattner points out in a New York Times op-ed today, it’s Romney, not Ryan, who’s the most radical in this area, mainly because his budget blueprint (such as it is) insists on higher defense spending than does Ryan’s, adding to the fiscal squeeze:

Mr. Romney is calling for a huge increase in defense spending — roughly $2 trillion more over the next decade than Mr. Ryan wants to spend, which is only $400 billion above Mr. Obama’s budget — even though the military is not asking for such an increase. Such an increase would force giant reductions, about 40 percent, in everything that’s left.

“Everything else” isn’t some catchall of small items, like feeding Big Bird. We’re talking about a vast array of programs including civilian and military pensions, food stamps, unemployment and disability compensation, the earned income and child tax credits, family support and nutrition, K-12 education, transportation, public safety and disaster relief. And on and on.

All told, Mr. Romney would allocate $6.9 trillion for these items, compared with the $9.3 trillion proposed by his own running mate (and Mr. Obama’s $12 trillion, which itself represents a 9 percent reduction from current levels, after adjusting for inflation).

No doubt some of what is buried within “other mandatory and nondefense discretionary spending” can be eliminated. Perhaps Americans won’t miss a few national parks or the space program.

But also nestled within this category are critical outlays for investments in infrastructure and research.

Eating the seed corn is never advisable, yet that’s what Washington is already doing. The share of spending on infrastructure (roads, airports, dams and the like) fell from 2 percent of G.D.P. in 1971 to 1 percent in 2010.

More — not less — government money needs to be invested in these kinds of growth-generating projects (not to mention education and training).

I recognize that in the real world, cuts on the scale envisioned by Mr. Romney will prove politically untenable, which would force a President Romney to rethink his agenda.

But as a statement of intent, it’s Mr. Romney — not Mr. Ryan — who has produced the budget that would more dramatically reduce the services offered by government, and in ways that would shock and outrage most Americans. We can only hope that Mr. Obama will draw those contrasts clearly in the debate.

If I were advising the president, I’d suggest he use the town hall format to ask a participant to name a government function he or she valued that wasn’t defense, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid and then use that to dramatize Rattner’s point and force Romney to get more specific. You may recall the device that Bill Clinton and Al Gore used in 1996 when Republicans were similarly trying to obscure the consequences of their budget proposals: they talked about M2E2: Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment as categories of spending Republicans would not protect and Democrats would prioritize. It was very effective. There’s no reason on earth Barack Obama couldn’t come up with a similarly simple device tomorrow night. Mitt Romney should not be able to continue to pretend he can do all the things he’s promised to do and confine the damage to waste, fraud, abuse and Big Bird.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.