House GOP trips up on spending cut figure it could have corrected long ago

Republicans took control of the House last fall based on commitments to slash government spending, yet even as they basked in their rise to power Wednesday, they were already under fire for reducing the amount of spending they plan to cut right away.

Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan of Wisconsin took to the airwaves early in the day to deny that they were retreating on spending cuts, following reports Tuesday that the cuts would be $50 billion instead of $100 billion.

Ryan’s explanation of why the number went down was plausible, but also technical and legalistic-sounding. It likely did little to alter the perception for many grassroots conservatives whose busy lives allow sometimes only a few moments a day to pay attention to headlines. The lesson for those absorbing at a glance: Republicans were already letting them down.

The facts on the spending cut change prove to be far less harmful for the GOP than the way it appears. And if the party is aggressive enough in pushing out their explanation, the political damage from this episode could be kept small.

But it needn’t have happened in the first place. Staffers and communicators at the highest levels of House Republican leadership could have prevented the $100 billion figure from taking hold in the media as the commitment they were making to cut.

Instead, they apparently failed to nail down what a promise to trim spending to 2008 levels meant in dollars and cents when they were set to take power this month. Consequently they perpetuated a faulty figure up until recent days, pushing it out even in the last two weeks.

As a result, Tea Party spokespersons – whose opinions must be considered with the caveat that they are speaking for a broad-based and leaderless movement – nonetheless voiced an opinion that would be of grave concern to the GOP if it were catching on.

“I actually don’t think it would be possible to fall from grace any faster than this,” Mark Meckler, with the Tea Party Patriots, told The Daily Caller.

A few House Republican aides admitted to TheDC that the party had slipped up in failing to correct the $100 billion figure – first thrown out in the “Pledge to America” document released in late September – before this week.

Other Republican staffers ignored questions about the error. A few argued the same thing as Ryan and other lawmakers: the $100 billion in cuts was an accurate number when the GOP first issued their pledge in September.

They tried to focus attention on what they said was the larger and more important promise to reduce spending to 2008 levels. It was the level, not the figure, that mattered, they said.

Republicans said the $100 billion figure applied in September but is smaller now because the budget year started in October, and so cutting the current budget to 2008 levels now is doing so with a less than whole piece of the budget pie, since three months of spending is already out the door.

“We are halfway through the fiscal year right now. So the problem is half the spending cats are already out of the bag, and that is why that number has become compromised,” Ryan said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“We’re still going to bring spending down to the level that we said we would bring spending at,” Ryan said. “But the savings you achieve from doing so halfway through the fiscal year isn’t as great as it was when we were talking about this a year ago.”