In the last two years, spending by the current Congress has increased 21.4 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The question thrown in the face of Tea Party activists and other conservative Republicans when they talk of cutting spending is, "Where would you cut?"
It's a loaded question, of course, and those who ask it follow it up with vitriolic assertions that any cuts will mean that children will go hungry, the elderly will be evicted from nursing homes, and the federal government will be forced to close, meaning no more Social Security checks. This is precisely the approach taken in 1995 when the Clinton administration set a trap for the new Republican congressional majority and shut down the government, sending Republicans into a hasty retreat, from which they and their proposed spending cuts never fully recovered.
Everyone knows Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid must be reformed, but Democrats want to maintain control, so they won't do what is necessary to fix these massive entitlement programs. So, where to cut?
The presumed new Republican majority can begin by paring down noncontroversial spending that the public will understand and then, after proving the programs aren't necessary or could be better run by the private sector, move on to more expensive programs.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., ranking member on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has made a start. In a letter to me, Rep. Mica encloses a report by his committee's minority staff with the clever title, "Sitting on Our Assets: The Federal Government's Misuse of Taxpayer-Owned Assets."
Misuse is a word most Americans understand and don't like.
The report identifies "hundreds of billions of dollars in potential savings" through "improved management" of what the federal government owns. "If implemented," says Rep. Mica, "the opportunities . . . have the potential to save up to approximately $250 billion."
Admittedly, that's not much when the latest deficit projection is $1.294 trillion, but we must start somewhere.
The problem is, and always has been, that once government programs and agencies are created, they quickly become sacrosanct and virtually impossible to destroy. As Ronald Reagan said, "Government programs, once launched, never disappear . . . a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" So it doesn't matter that the Department of Education doesn't educate, or that the Department of Energy doesn't produce energy. It's government and, thus, by definition, good in the minds of the Washington establishment.
There are quite a number of solid proposals for spending cuts and efficiencies in the minority staff report. These include "Amtrak's squandering the potential development of high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor; The Federal Aviation Administration's management of air traffic control facilities; utilizing innovative financing alternatives, including well-defined private sector participation, for infrastructure projects." (Why should the money come only from government?)
Additionally, a new House (and possibly Senate) majority ought to embarrass Democrats by exposing the number of government programs that no longer work (or never achieved their objectives) and then ask for a referendum from the public as to whether they want the money they earn to continue to go for such things. Republicans could also ask the private sector to submit proposals for projects it could do less expensively and more efficiently than government.
People who elect not to participate in government programs might be given a tax break. A new emphasis on healthy living (thank you Michelle Obama for emphasizing how overweight we are) would reduce the costs of healthcare and possibly lower the cost of health insurance, as well as reduce the number of hospital stays.
The public will likely accept these and other cost reductions if they can see results and if Republicans can persuade them that the cuts they're making are in the public's interest, and not in the interest of the GOP. That's the challenge. Rep. Mica's minority report offers one answer to the question "Where would you cut spending?" Get this right and there will be many others.
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