The “Scandal” of Current Services Budgeting

One of the ubiquitous but little-discussed problems at the heart of the endless fiscal debate in Washington is that progressives and conservatives have a very different way of defining “budget cuts.” The former (along with such institutions as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget) identify as “baseline” spending those expenditures necessary to maintain current services, which means adjustments are made to reflect inflation, and in the case of entitlement programs, “caseload growth’ caused by a higher eligible population (attributable either to population growth or to changes in circumstances that make more people eligible). From this perspective, even if absolute spending goes up, so long as actual services or benefits are cut, or people lose eligibility, that’s a “cut” since that is how it affects real people in the real world. Conversely, automatic or COLA adjustments aren’t “budget increases,” since it’s just more money for the same stuff.

To many conservatives, this way of thinking is a horrific scam and scandal, a deliberate lie intended to make government grow perpetually. Indeed, some think it’s the only reason Democrats ever win budget fights or elections. Here’s pollster Scott Rasmussen just today whining about it:

To most Americans, maintaining spending at current levels would mean spending the same amount in 2013 as we spent in 2012. However, to those experienced in the mysterious ways of Washington, maintaining spending at current levels means spending $3.5 trillion this year and $4.5 trillion in five years. To most Americans, that’s a trillion dollars in spending growth.

The Political Class, on the other hand, would consider holding spending unchanged at current levels to be a massive spending cut. Why? Because it wouldn’t allow for the trillion dollar spending growth that is already built into the budget.

I don’t know what’s so mysterious about the concept of regarding an action as a “budget cut” if reduces the amount of stuff that can be bought in a particular budget category, or throws people otherwise eligible for existing benefits out on the street. In the area where this kind of adjustment matters most, health care, “spending the same amount” from year to year would very, very quickly shrink Medicare and Medicaid into programs covering far fewer people and/or providing far fewer services. What’s so “honest” about denying that?

So next time you read or hear some hammer-headed conservative complaint about “smaller budget increases being called budget cuts,” the question to ask is: What stuff is somebody going to be denied to keep spending at the level you are demanding? Which people are going to be denied services they had yesterday? Are you going to tell them it’s “not a budget cut?”

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.