If you’re a small-government type, there’s a lot to like in Senator Tom Coburn’s “Back to Black” deficit-reduction plan, which was released yesterday. What makes Coburn’s spending cut plan different — and better — than most is that it’s detailed, balanced and just (I’ll leave it to others to discuss the revenue side of his plan). These three elements are critical to changing the culture of spending in D.C.
Right now, in hundreds of conference rooms in ugly cement buildings, federal bureaucrats are reassuring themselves that their own program’s mission is so important that its funding will be “taken care of.” Translation: House Republicans can cut, but the cuts won’t stick.
So far, this has been a safe bet, in part because the bureaucrats haven’t truly experienced the impact of cuts.
For example, last December, President Obama proposed a federal pay freeze with a built-in thaw; although employees wouldn’t receive cost-of-living increases, those scheduled for “step increases” in pay would get them at a cost of $2.5 billion. This bit of kabuki sent a message that federal employees would remain protected.
The other factor in the bureaucrats’ minds is how fiercely some senators will fight to protect spending in their states. Think back to last fall, when Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) loudly resisted calls to end earmarks but did an abrupt about-face in November after Kentucky voters elected earmarkphobe Rand Paul. But not every Senate earmarker has a fiscal diet buddy like Paul. Thus, the bureaucrats are hoping that the Senate will restore whatever the House cuts.
In contrast, Coburn’s plan is all about changing the culture. I said it was detailed, balanced and just. Here’s why these things are important.
Details: Some legislators have claimed that much of the deficit could be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, without coming up with a list of detailed remedies. Coburn has gone through the entire federal government, office by office, and proposed reducing, eliminating or reconfiguring certain programs and cutting spending on travel and junkets, as well as shrinking operational expenses such as office space rental. Clearly, Coburn realizes that generalities are easy but specifics are hard — though necessary for accountability.
Balance: Coburn doesn’t put the entire burden on just one area — he spreads it around, even calling for cuts in defense expenditures. His plan to restore solvency to the Social Security disability programs includes increased audits and tighter eligibility rules coupled with streamlined procedures. Thus, Social Security staff could be shifted from processing cases to performing reviews to determine if beneficiaries are still eligible for disability benefits — a balanced approach.
Justice: If we’re going to ask middle-class and lower-income people to shoulder part of the burden of deficit reduction, simple justice requires that we stop allowing more and more federal employees to ride around in limos, hold management meetings at resorts and receive very generous benefit packages. Likewise, simple justice also calls for an end to corporate subsidies. Coburn’s plan does all this and more.
Are Republicans serious about changing the culture of spending in D.C.? Many Americans remain unconvinced. Senator Coburn has taken a thoughtful, comprehensive first step toward change. Will others have the courage to follow?
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.