Mr. Freeze

MR. FREEZE…. Perhaps the most contentious element of the State of the Union came about half-way through, when President Obama noted the “legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago,” which to his mind, necessitates a response now that “the worst of the recession is over.”

“So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

“This freeze will require painful cuts. Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.

“I recognize that some in this Chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. And let’s make sure what we’re cutting is really excess weight. Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”

This portion didn’t generate much in the way of congressional applause, and that wasn’t at all surprising. Democrats fear the economic effects of a lengthy spending freeze, while Republicans consider a freeze inadequate, and prefer to take a hatchet to the budget, regardless of the economic consequences.

For me, I found the idea fairly annoying. The notion that families and businesses are cutting back so government should, too, is fundamentally flawed, and an actual five-year freeze would undoubtedly undermine public services and economic growth.

But the reason I’m not too outraged is because I’m not at all sure the president actually means “freeze” when he says “freeze,” and it seems even less likely the rhetoric will matter on Capitol Hill.

You’ll recall, of course, that Obama called for a spending freeze about a year ago at this time, but the White House’s definition of the phrase was a little more amorphous than expected — some priorities would get more funding, some would get less. The plan was effectively more of an overall spending cap than an actual freeze.

And I suspect that’s what Obama was referencing last night, too. Indeed, the State of the Union called for all kinds of new investments — in energy, in education, etc. — that would be largely impossible if budgets were frozen in place across the board.

The reality is, Congress controls the purse strings, and will spend how it chooses to spend. That’s the case this year, and it will still be the case every year for the next five years. Obama’s rhetorical call for a freeze set out the White House’s vision on how to proceed, but it’s still just rhetoric.