President Obama’s proposal on the fiscal cliff was notable for its lack of spending cuts — at most, he offered $400 billion in unspecified reductions to Medicare, while also asking for more spending on stimulus, unemployment insurance, and temporary payroll tax cuts. The Republican response, of course, was incredulity: “The Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts,” said House Speaker John Boehner last week, “No substantive progress has been made in the talks between the White House and the House over the last two weeks.”
Obama has continued to hold to his initial proposal, and likewise, Republicans refuse to consider a package that doesn’t contain more spending cuts. Here’s what Boehner said during yesterday’s press conference:
“We have got to cut spending and I believe it is appropriate to put revenues on the table,” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. “Now, the revenues that we are putting on the table are going to come from guess who? The rich.”
This sounds reasonable — it is supposed to be a “deal,” after all — until you realize that there’s an important piece of context missing. Namely, that Democrats have already agreed to big spending cuts.
With last year’s Budget Control Act — which resolved the debt ceiling crisis, and set the stage for the “fiscal cliff” — President Obama agreed to cut discretionary spending by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. If you split defense spending — which accounts for $600 billion in savings — from that total, you’re left with $900 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, accomplished by an across-the-board cap on appropriations.
What’s more, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, this cap is based on 2010 funding levels, which weren’t pumped up by the stimulus (“increases in discretionary funding under the Recovery Act are 2009 appropriations,” even if the money wasn’t spent until the following year).
Far from an unreasonable sop to the left, Obama’s proposal for $1.6 trillion in new revenue actually brings us back closer to a “balanced” deal on the fiscal cliff, when you consider last year’s spending cuts. And indeed, if you include Obama’s Medicare cuts, the White House deal is actually somewhat tilted towards spending cuts.
Because our political conversations are context free — at times, Washington seems to have the collective memory of a goldfish — the Republican counter-offer sounds reasonable to many: A little less revenue, a few more spending cuts. But when you consider last year’s deal, the big picture is clear: Far from balance, what Republicans want is for Obama to adopt their priorities pretty much wholesale.