The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to cut spending, Republicans? Liberals have some ideas for that.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks with members of the media at the Capitol on Jan. 24. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has found his talking point in response to President Biden’s refusal to negotiate over whether the government should default on its debts. “I want to look the president in the eye and [have him] tell me there’s not one dollar of wasteful spending in government,” the California Republican has said. “Who believes that? The American public doesn’t believe that.”

That isn’t really the question — like any large organization, the federal government surely has some waste it could cut — but eliminating wasteful spending wouldn’t get us very far. The deficit for fiscal year 2022 was $1.375 trillion, and we’re not overpaying that much for pencils and file folders. Balancing the budget as Republicans are asking for would require truly spectacular evisceration of programs Americans rely on.

So here’s another question: If we wanted to do some budget-cutting — not under the extortionist threat of default, but just because it might be worthwhile — what federal spending do liberals think we could do without?

I reached out to budget experts at a half-dozen liberal think tanks for answers. Some were definitely reluctant to get drawn into a debate that assumes the budget must be cut at all. “Rather than ask what we should cut, we should ask how we can ensure that government is funded properly so that our country reaches its fullest potential,” said Jean Ross of the Center for American Progress. Ross noted that we chronically underinvest in the government’s administrative capacity, the prime example being the Internal Revenue Service.

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Angela Hanks of Demos agreed. “Cuts don’t grow the economy, they don’t feed or house people, and they certainly don’t create more opportunities for communities to thrive,” Hanks told me. “It’s overly simplistic — and wrongheaded economic policy — to simply focus on budget cuts without considering the costs.”

Some of these experts noted that we spend less on our government as a percentage of gross domestic product than most of our peer countries do, and we also tax less than most of them do.

But if you do want to make cuts, you might as well start where the money goes: The biggest items in the federal budget are Social Security, health care (including Medicare and Medicaid) and the military. As a general rule, Republicans would like to cut the first two, while Democrats would rather cut the third.

The military is the place to start cutting, said Lindsay Koshgarian of the Institute for Policy Studies. “More than half of the military budget goes to contractors in an average year, subsidizing multimillion-dollar CEO salaries and stock buybacks, as well as cases of egregious overcharging,” she told me. “Trimming weapons and military contracts is long overdue. And Congress routinely refuses to allow the Pentagon to retire weapons systems it no longer wants.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says tax expenditures are worth reforming so they cost less, especially the breaks that disproportionately help the wealthy, such as 529 college-savings accounts and 401(k) retirement accounts. The group also points to Medicare Advantage, in which the government pays private insurers to administer Medicare benefits, as a place where billions of dollars in savings could be found.

You might or might not like those ideas for cuts, but they’re serious, involving significant sums of money. In contrast, when conservatives offer examples of federal spending they think aren’t worthwhile, they’re usually incredibly small expenditures that they think sound silly, often involving animal research.

That’s likely because they understand a feature of public opinion that political scientists have known since the 1960s: On the subject of government, most Americans sound conservative in the abstract and liberal in the specific. They say government should be small and the budget should be balanced, but when it comes to particular things government actually does, they support almost all of them and want to spend more money on them.

We see that dynamic play out over and over again, including right now. Republicans who want to cut government speak only at high levels of abstraction: Government is too big and powerful, it has to live within its means and so on. Democrats demand in exasperation that Republicans reveal precisely what they want to cut, and argue by bringing up the threat to specific popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Some politicians in both parties have sought to satisfy both impulses, loudly defending liberal programs while adopting conservative rhetoric on the size of government. Donald Trump did it by promising not to cut entitlements, while Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.”

As for McCarthy’s assertion that rooting out “waste” will solve the problem, we’ve heard that for decades. Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase “waste, fraud and abuse” — while the deficit skyrocketed on his watch.

One person’s waste is another person’s vital program. There are no cuts everyone can agree on, or at least no significant ones. Which means that for this conflict to be resolved, someone is going to have to lose.