The findings from the budget office warned that the deal may never come close to delivering on its promises. The analysts found that $13 billion to $18 billion of the cuts involve money that existed only on paper and was unlikely to be tapped in the next decade.
The shrinking appearance of the reductions changed Thursday’s atmospherics on Capitol Hill. Just days after he was hailed for “winning” negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was making a last-minute plea for votes from members of his party.
In the end, about one-quarter of House Republicans voted against the bill. That total included 28 of the 87 Republican freshmen, who had won election by promising that the solutions were simple — it was how Washington works that was unnecessarily complicated.
For some, the news of this accounting alchemy showed how complicated the place remains, even with them in it.
“It was a factor in what pushed me toward ‘no,’ ” said Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.), one of 28 Republican freshmen who voted against the deal. “This is just the way that both parties have done business for a long time. And I just don’t want to be a part of that stuff.”
Boehner rejected the idea that the cuts were not as large as they appeared. Rather, he said, the impact could be much larger: In part because it would shrink the baseline budget left to future Congresses, it might save up to $315 billion over 10 years.
“There are some who claim that the spending cuts in this bill aren’t real, that they’re gimmicks,” Boehner said in a speech before the House’s vote. “Well, I just think it’s total nonsense. A cut is a cut.”
The problem — in the murky mathematics of the federal budget — is that not all “spending” is really spending.
Understanding why requires knowing that the government does not work like a savings bank. Agencies do not have their own checking accounts, fattened up
every year with new money from Congress.
Instead, Congress usually gives agencies the authority to draw from Uncle Sam’s one gigantic checking account. That is the Treasury’s General Fund, which is constantly taking in taxes, fees and borrowed money.
The agencies can’t take money out of this fund until they’re ready to spend it.
And that’s where it becomes complicated.
Sometimes, agencies aren’t ready to spend the money until a year, or longer, after Congress gives them their IOU. That’s not a problem when an agency makes a one-time purchase for something like pencils. Officials call a supplier, get their pencils and write a check, and the money is gone.