Stop The Presses: Budget Cuts Actually Hurt

Think the federal budget can be cut without actually affecting what the government does? As my column from this morning’s Roll Call explains, tell that to all those who have been working on the space shuttle.

News Flash: Budget Cuts Have Consequences

We interrupt the steady barrage of news and analysis on the latest developments in the federal debt ceiling debate to bring you a what-shouldn’t-be-but-clearly-is-breaking-news story: Cuts in spending do, in fact, mean the government does less.

Depending on your age, you’re probably now saying something like “shocking,” “duh” or “get out.” The truth, however, is that most people don’t seem to think that this is the case.

Take, for example, last week’s launch of the final space shuttle mission.

NASA isn’t ending the shuttle because its work is done. Instead, the shuttle is one of the clear victims of the federal budget pressures that have built up over the past decade. The shuttle has been sacrificed to tax cuts, two wars, an extension of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and a number of other initiatives that weren’t paid for when they were adopted.

Trying to make the space shuttle the explicit trade-off for tax cuts or the Iraq War when they were debated very likely would have failed overwhelmingly. But make no mistake about it, even though the actual decision came years later, the shuttle was eliminated to help pay for them.

This will come as a shock to those in and around Houston and Cape Canaveral who benefit from the shuttle and who likely supported most or all of the other spending and taxing initiatives adopted over the past 10 years. They almost certainly didn’t think that the shuttle would or should be used as an offset and didn’t give much thought to the notion that they personally would be asked to pay for these other things.

It will also be a surprise to many other Americans who fervently believe the reductions in spending that they want can be achieved if the government simply does everything it’s currently doing less expensively. In their minds, if Washington is just more efficient and eliminates “wastefraudandabuse” (it’s almost always said as if it’s one word), the deficit problem can be solved with little pain and no sacrifice.

Polls show this consistently. Big majorities say they want to cut spending to deal with the deficit but, with the exception of foreign aid, few specific areas of federal activity get anything close to a majority agreeing they should actually be reduced. This is true of conservatives as well as liberals and tea party Republicans as well as progressive Democrats.

I’ve personally seen this situation at work when observing focus groups on the budget. Time and again the participants pound on a table, demand that spending be cut and then insist that the federal facility down the road where they or their neighbors work not be touched even if it’s deemed to be wasteful and unnecessary. I’ve also seen those same participants propose — immediately after demanding spending cuts — that more be spent on the services that they rely on from the government and insist that it can all be paid for if the government just buys less expensive furniture.

The equivalent of eliminating the space shuttle program to reduce the federal deficit is even more apparent at the state and local government levels. For example, in recent weeks there have been reports of New York state judges resigning in large numbers because pay hasn’t been increased in more than a decade. The best legal talent is going elsewhere as a result.

There have also been stories about local governments making budget cuts that imperil their cities and towns because firefighting equipment can’t be maintained and police don’t have adequate staff to patrol the streets. Some cities have closed half or more of their schools not because the number of students has dropped but because they need to offset other costs. And anyone who drives knows how long-delayed or canceled road maintenance — one of the most typical responses to local budget problems — has increased the costs of maintaining their tires and alignment or caused accidents.

Cutting the space shuttle is just the most obvious of what will likely be a series of changes in what the federal government does. The Department of Defense and military and national security policymakers almost certainly will have their choices limited in many of the same ways. Like NASA, some activities that the Pentagon traditionally has done — and which, like the shuttle, are very popular — will end up being used as budget offsets.

And just like some of the public safety spending cuts that local governments have put in place, the National Guard’s ability to respond to natural disasters will likely be reduced substantially.

The point is not that spending shouldn’t be cut to deal with the deficit. When the deficit rather than economic growth is considered the primary problem, that will be close to a universally accepted given.

The point is that there is now ample evidence that the popular notion that spending cuts can and will be painless is incontrovertibly wrong. This may not yet be as obvious as it should be, but it will soon change budget politics forever as the effect of reductions start to be clear and commonly accepted. Anyone whose job was to help the space shuttle fly or whose home burnt to the ground because of a lack of adequately maintained firefighting equipment already knows that this is the case.

[Cross-posted at Capital Gains and Games]