The evaporating federal government

December 20, 2012

Someday we will have a longer discussion about political nomenclature in Washington. Right now everyone’s talking about Boehner’s “Plan B.” Not a great name for a plan. The actual legislation will be technically known, I’m guessing, as the Restore America to Greatness and Defend Our Country Clubs Act of 2012.

Meanwhile we’re getting close to the Fiscal Cliff, a term that I believe was coined by Ben Bernanke. It’s an imprecise metaphor. You don’t all over the cliff, you slam into it. Also you get kind of sliced and diced. It’s like a haircut. The Great Buzz Cut. Workin’ on it.

The Republicans would like to get past the cliff and on to the Debt Ceiling, because then they can threaten again to default on our obligations. The Debt Ceiling is arguably misnamed. It’s a limit on borrowing, but the laws are already on the books, the obligations are there, and so the Debt Ceiling is really an integrity test to see if you’re willing to borrow the money to make good on the contracts you’ve already entered. Only in recent years have Republicans managed to market the Debt Ceiling vote as if it were a true decision point on our finances. That’s a classic case of victory-through-nomenclature.

Lost in all the fiscal cliffing is the fact that the non-military side of the federal government as we traditionally know it – the government that actually does things, that employs park rangers and meat inspectors and teachers for Head Start programs and so on — is being dramatically slashed. This is arguably the most under-covered story of the year. This is why we keep asking in this space Who Speaks For Ducks?

Conservatives want this to happen, of course, because they favor smaller government. Liberals, at least as far as I can tell, seem to be more focused on protecting entitlement programs.

Discretionary non-military spending is the easiest thing to cut; you don’t have to specify what you’re doing. David Kamin talked about this dynamic in a recent piece in The Post.

To understand more, read the piece in the Times today by Eduardo Porter, aptly headlined, “Goodbye, Government, Under Either Fiscal Plan.”

Excerpt:

“Loath to raise taxes on the middle class yet unwilling to cut deeply into the budgets for Social Security or Medicare, the president and his advisers proposed cutting the discretionary part of the budget devoted to everything except defense and other security agencies to 1.7 percent of economic output by 2022, down from 3.1 percent last year.

“This is not irrelevant spending. It accounts for every government expenditure except entitlements, security and interest. It pays subsidies for higher education and housing assistance for the poor. It finances the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. It pays for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and training programs for unemployed workers. Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | December 17, 2012