An elusive being has haunted Washington for decades now. Part gimmick and part punctuation mark, this mysterious creature has consistently baffled researchers and budget wonks who have sought to penetrate the fields of distortion it seems to create around the federal budget.
It was first spotted in a proposal President Reagan's budget director David Stockman submitted to Congress more than 30 years ago. On Tuesday, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, warned that its baleful influence could be felt in a budget proposal released by his Republican colleagues.
"They have a magic asterisk," Hoyer said.
The magic asterisk: The words alone are enough to strike fear into the hearts of grizzled veterans of the budget wars.
Hoyer was apparently not referring to an actual asterisk, but to a row of figures with the innocuous label "Other Mandatory" in one of several tables at the back of the document. The numbers show that Republicans are planning to save $1.1 trillion over 10 years by reducing outlays for mandatory spending other than on health care and Social Security, a drastic reduction for that category as compared to current policy.
It was not immediately clear where the savings would come from, but they're necessary in order for the budget to balance within a decade, as Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said it would. The large reduction in this category is crucial for attaining the budget's $5.5 trillion of overall savings, which the document stated could be achieved "without gimmicks or creative accounting tricks" or "sudden and arbitrary cuts to current services." House Republicans hope to reach those goals while increasing spending on the military and without raising taxes.
Other than health care and Social Security, mandatory spending includes a range of programs such as food stamps, disability payments for veterans, the earned income tax credit, and Pell grants for college students. The budget document did not specify which would be cut. Even presuming very large cuts to these programs, though, it was still unclear how lawmakers expected to come up with $1.1 trillion, said Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
By comparison, the Republican majority in the House voted in favor of reducing the budget for food stamps in 2013. The controversial measure passed only narrowly, with every Democrat and a few Republicans opposed. Many worried the cut was too severe, but it totaled $40 billion, just a sliver of the savings claimed in this week's proposal.
No visible asterisk appears in the document, although the magic asterisk is reportedly capable of changing shape and even becoming invisible.
President George H.W. Bush was accused of allowing the asterisk to infiltrate his proposals to Congress, as was President Clinton. More recently, during the 2012 campaign, commentators noted a gap of some $897 billion in the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), then a candidate for vice president, which was also attributed to mandatory spending.
This time, Greenstein was surprised by the size of the asterisk in the new plan.
"We were concerned that there would be a magic asterisk in the budget," he said. "It turns out to be an even bigger magic asterisk than we expected."
The plan is only an outline that does not specify any proposal in detail, so perhaps Republicans just need more time to work out the specifics of their proposal. If so, it's possible that the GOP caucus will eventually come to an agreement on budgetary priorities. The debate promises to be a contentious one, as Republican lawmakers are divided over whether to sacrifice military spending for continued deficit reduction.