No pain, no gain in budget cuts

As Republicans and Democrats ponder ways to reduce the size and scope of government, they will have to overcome their natural tendency to simply cut each other’s favorite programs.

Even the most inefficient and wrongheaded federal program, and virtually every dollar the federal government spends, benefits someone. As a result, every cut suggested by anyone, anywhere, generates opposition. Much of the opposition to spending restraint is motivated by self-interest. Government contractors, federal workers and those who gain some benefit work to ensure not only that they continue to get money from you and me, but that elected officials send more their way every year. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The debate over what might reasonably be cut or which federal programs might be eliminated quickly becomes little more than a shouting match between competing interests who rail against each other. 

To liberals like Harry Reid, those who seek to cut spending are responding to a base desire to starve the poor and punish the defenseless. Liberals don’t believe in an insistent electorate demanding cuts or that America is facing a fiscal crisis capable of destroying the viability of the American experiment. 

At the same time, many conservative Republicans assert that anyone who even hints that we might be spending money we don’t need to spend at the Pentagon is either in league with our nation’s enemies or a direct descendant of Neville Chamberlain. 

Even those who take the ultimately silly position that the nation’s fiscal problems can be solved by attacking “waste, fraud and abuse,” rather than re-examining what government ought to or can do, rarely see abuses within their favorite programs. This year, the Government Accountability Office reported once again that billions are being spent on duplicative programs directed at solving the same problem — and in knee-jerk style, supporters are lining up, prepared to go to the wall to defend their particular program and argue that anyone who proposes cutting it is a heartless ogre. 

The real problem is that liberals and conservatives alike have over the years gauged an elected official’s support for the goals of a program by the money he or she has been willing to spend on it. Thus, liberals measure one’s support for education, welfare and health programs by how much more one votes to fund them each year. Questions about how the money is spent or a reluctance to keep growing the program are seen as hostility toward its goal. 

On defense, conservatives have seemed all too willing to assume almost without question that a strong America requires that we spend more and more on defense. This has to stop.

The spending spiral gets worse because the beneficiaries of current spending and those seeking even more have learned how to fit whatever they want into the framework of this sort of blindness. Sponsors and lobbyists are always look for ways to attach their favorite spending proposal to a larger piece of legislation that will make its way through Congress and be signed almost automatically by any president. Thus, when analysts go through appropriations bills, they are often struck by the presence of spending that seems to have little or nothing to do with the core mission of the agency the bill was designed to fund. 

This weekend The Washington Post highlighted the fact that the defense budget makes the Pentagon almost as big a player in cancer research as the National Institutes of Health. In 1992, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) wanted to increase breast cancer research beyond what Congress was willing to give NIH and quietly attached a $25 million earmark to a defense appropriations bill. This year the program will consume some 250 million defense dollars, and the Pentagon seems as attached to it as to the monies needed to fight the Afghan war. 

When House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) argued recently that cuts in the defense budget would almost definitionally cripple our ability to defend ourselves, he must have overlooked this program and many others that deserve real scrutiny. Real cuts can and must be made in almost every agency without weakening the agency’s core mission.

One hopes it was the core mission, and not the waste, frills and administrative duplication endemic to government, that McKeon wants to protect. That can be done without crippling our defenses, just as we can make cuts to domestic programs without abandoning the young, old and disadvantaged. 

If it can’t, we are lost.

David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, serves as first vice president of the National Rifle Association, and maintains an “of counsel” relationship with The Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental affairs firm.