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

Jon Ward Contributor
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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.”

But Republicans would have known this would happen way back in the fall when they first started using the $100 billion figure. That raises the question of why GOP communications shops did not start using a different figure weeks ago, at the very least, and explaining why it had changed. Instead, it popped up on the day that the national spotlight on them was brightest.

Some Republicans blamed the fact that Democrats failed to pass a budget last fall – a serious abdication of responsibility in its own right – and said it kept Republicans in such uncertainty that it was hard to accurately forecast what the true impact of their spending cuts would be.

“There was a lot of waiting to see what was going to happen and then a lot of catching up once we did know,” one House Republican leadership aide said.

But Doug Thornell, spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland who is the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said that if the GOP “wanted to blame us they should have done it a long time ago and stopped using the 100 billion number, but they didn’t.”

“I think they are scrambling for excuses,” Thornell said. “It begs the question, what other key promises are they going to break once their rhetoric runs into reality?”

And the GOP explanation flew in the face of what sticks out to regular voters. Spending levels are vague and amorphous political talk to most, and pointing the finger at the other guy rarely works. But figures in the billions and tens of billions of dollars are more concrete.

“My opinion [is] they didn’t really think about whether it was 2011 or 2012. They didn’t really care,” Meckler said. “They just wanted election year talking points. Truly astounding.”

Fortunately for Boehner and Republican leaders, none of the freshman GOP House members who spoke with TheDC on Wednesday expressed outright frustration with the change.

TheDC spoke with Tim Scott of South Carolina, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Ben Quayle of Arizona, Dan Benishek of Michigan, and Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania. The closest any of them came to showing irritation with the change in the GOP’s spending cut commitment was when Ellmers rolled her eyes upon hearing a question about it.

“I don’t want to downplay what we’re looking at with numbers and amounts,” Ellmers said. “What I can say is we are very committed to doing something. It’s the only way we’re going to turn things around.”

Ellmers added: “I really hate when we put numbers on things, because then it seems like if you didn’t achieve it you hadn’t met your goal. The idea here, I believe, is to cut spending.”

Scott said he thinks the GOP can avoid raising the debt ceiling if it cuts $300 billion from the budget, though a goal like that is almost certainly impossible given Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

“If you start with a $100 billion it’s a lot easier than starting with $10 billion, to get to $300 billion,” Scott said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican who has been one of the most outspoken conservatives willing to challenge the GOP leadership, dodged when asked if the move from $100 billion to $50 billion was a disappointment.

“I’d like to get the books to balance. That’s my goal,” she told TheDC. “Obviously it’s going to take a little time to do it, but we can’t use any more excuses. Now we actually have to make it happen.”

Bachmann said she thought the Tea Party and grassroots conservatives would give the GOP some leeway in its pursuit of cutting spending. But her focus on the impact of perception only amplified the potential impact of a snafu like the GOP’s failure to get out in front and correct the $100 billion figure long ago.

“I think as long as we are working and as long as we are making a concerted effort toward deficit reduction I think people’s patience will be there. But if it looks like we’re playing a game and paying lip service, then their patience will wear out,” Bachmann said.

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