Counterpoint: Maybe Republicans aren’t winning on spending, after all

December 12, 2013

Yesterday, I suggested that Republicans have been winning the debate over discretionary spending in Congress.* The reason? Overall spending on discretionary programs next year is set to be lower than even Paul Ryan envisioned in his initial budget back in 2011.

But Loren Adler of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget argues that this is a bit simplistic. You can't just look at overall spending levels — you also have to look at the mix of spending. Ryan's original budget wanted to increase defense spending while dramatically cutting everything else, from health to transportation to housing to environmental programs.

And that's not quite where we're we've ended up. The latest budget deal struck between Ryan and Patty Murray would have far less spending on defense and far more spending on domestic programs than Ryan and the House GOP originally proposed:


Democrats have had to accept far less discretionary spending than either President Obama's budget or Patty Murray's original budget proposed. But they've been able to make sure that a sizable chunk of the reductions have come from the defense side instead of the domestic side.

So it depends how you look at it. Discretionary spending is still set to be 14 percent below 2010 levels next year, after adjusting for inflation. As a share of the economy, federal spending on these programs is at historic lows. That's a win for those in favor of austerity. And it's a loss for those who think that cutting federal spending right now will drag down the economy and hurt growth, especially when unemployment is still high.

But it's not quite true to say that Paul Ryan has achieved total victory here — at least if you look at the type of spending that has survived.

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* Just a reminder, "discretionary spending" is basically anything that Congress funds each year through the appropriations process. It doesn't include Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security (those are "mandatory" programs).

But it does include virtually everything else: defense programs and the military, Veterans Affairs, scientific research, housing, the FBI and environmental enforcement, among other federal programs.

All told, discretionary spending makes up about 30 percent of the federal budget.

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