It’s All Very Simple

Like Jonathan Chait, I thought much of David Farenthold’s big WaPo weekend piece on federal spending was “weirdly biased.” Jon’s right that it used “crude, badly deployed statistics” to convince us government’s really big and not getting any smaller despite all the talk of spending cuts. Indeed, the piece read sort of like a Tea Party submission to a Point-Counter-Point debate from My Weekly Reader, or something right from the playbook of Dr. Dumb-Down, Bobby Jindal.

But buried in the bad statistics and lurid adjectives about the size and cost of government was Farenthold’s real argument:

[Government] is still so big primarily because Congress and Obama have largely failed to deal with programs such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps.

These “mandatory spending” programs are very large, accounting for about 60 percent of federal spending. Congress doesn’t set their spending every year. Instead, when need goes up, spending goes up. And, in the recession, need went up.

Even after six paralyzing budget showdowns, this “mandatory” spending has fallen by less than 1 percent. By contrast, spending on “discretionary” expenses — the smaller pot of money that Congress does control every year — has fallen by 14 percent. That reduction is partially due to the winding down of a stimulus and two wars, as well as to “sequestration” and other budget cuts imposed since 2010.

“We’re nowhere. I mean, the sad reality is that we’re nowhere” toward taming those “mandatory” costs, said Gordon Adams, a budget official in the Clinton administration and now a fellow at the Stimson Center.

And now, in a capital burned by six crises, a deal to cut these big-ticket programs seems less likely than ever. “We’ve gotten further away from anything that will bring us to a ‘grand bargain’ right now,” Adams said.

What we are really witnessing here is the use of Tea Party tactics to sell the languishing idea of a “grand bargain” centered on “entitlement reform” to conservatives concerned about Big Government and liberals or centrists concerned about non-defense discretionary spending. You get the sense that it seems all very simple to Farenthold, who is frustrated that it doesn’t seem simple to everyone else. So out come the big dumb charts and numbers and the over-the-top adjectives, and out goes any contextualized discussion of the federal budget battle as simply a reflection of the very different priorities of the two major political parties. When you favor “solutions” with very small constituencies, serving up a cartoon version of the issues at stake isn’t going to make much difference.

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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.