House Republicans Take Chainsaw to the Budget

While much of the national attention recently has been on President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, the House of Representatives is still looking backward to FY 2011. Last Friday, House Republicans unveiled a new and improved budget plan, one containing $60.9 billion in cuts from the FY 2010 budget ($65.5 billion cut from non-security discretionary, $4.7 billion increase for security spending). The new plan is an update to one released just days earlier, one which the party’s conservative faction rejected. These conservatives pushed for a full $100 billion worth of cuts from Obama’s FY 2011 budget (which as I said last week was a terrible baseline), and in a matter of days, the conservatives got them. And the new budget is full of bad news.

Without holding any hearings or even consulting with House Democrats, Republicans cut an additional $26 billion from the FY 2010 budget almost overnight. The updated plan contains reductions for hundreds of important federal programs, blindly cutting away in a rush to get to the magical $100 billion figure in time to release their plan before Obama released his budget. The House Republicans didn't use a scalpel to cut spending, they used a chainsaw, working quickly and sloppily.

To be sure, House Republicans went after discretionary spending with a passion. You can’t cut $65.5 billion without slashing a great deal of programs. For instance, Transportation gets cut especially bad. High speed rail funding is completely eliminated, as are two Federal Highway Administration programs. But the cuts affect almost every agency. The Center for National and Community Service (home of AmeriCorps) sees an almost 90% cut, public housing capital funds get cut 42%, Pell Grants are cut by 15%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are cut by 20%, and international disaster assistance gets cut almost in half. Meanwhile, the Defense Department budget grows by almost 2%, while the Legislative Branch sees a measly 4% cut. All of these reductions will mean drastic changes in the way the federal government helps those most in need, while at the same time increasing defense spending.

But even the small cuts can be harsh. According to information provided by a source in the House, the $88 million cut to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which conducts inspections of the nation’s meat and poultry plants, while only about a 9% of its budget, could end up causing more than $10 billion in damage to the nation’s economy (a smaller budget means fewer inspectors, fewer inspectors mean less frequent inspections, and plants have to be closed down if they haven’t been inspected; these closures will result in less economic activity). Similarly, Head Start’s 15% reduction means 200,000 kids kicked out of the program, while firing thousands of teachers across the country. All told, the cuts in the Republican budget could mean as many as 1 million jobs lost. That’s not exactly the kind of jobs program the Republicans promised.

Even worse, the House budget was pushed through with a premium placed on speed, collapsing a year-long process into a matter of hours. With the conservative revolt just a few days before the President’s budget was set to be published, Republicans had to scramble to beat Obama to the punch. Republicans left no stone unturned looking for targets. During an unrelated oversight hearing the day before they released the new budget, House Appropriations member Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) asked NASA’s inspector general to come up with potential programs to cut, saying “We need real specific, real quickly.” And so, without holding any hearings or talking to any agency heads in an effort to gauge the impact or effectiveness of any of their cuts, House Republicans rushed through a budget with $65.5 billion in cuts. The plan was so slapdash the accompanying table of program cuts is rife with errors and doesn’t even add up correctly.

The House started debating the bill on Tuesday, with a final vote scheduled for Thursday. But with a few hundred amendments to work through, the debate could take a while (probably lasting into the next legislative week, which starts Feb. 28). And while House Democrats were hoping to use the amendment process to try to hold Republicans accountable for each of the bill’s spending cuts, in the end the amendments will likely serve only to further cut spending in the bill. And with each additional cut, it becomes less and less likelythe House and Senate will be able to reach a compromise on an FY 2011 budget, and more and more likely we’ll be facing a government shutdown in early March.

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