The NPR Vote and Understanding the Budget

Republican budget cuts to this point have been less than serious.

To partially follow one point from Doug Mataconis’ post about the apparent lack of seriousness on the part of Congressional Republicans in regards to fiscal matters. Whether one thinks that austerity is needed or whether one thinks it is needed now, later, or gradually over time, the fact of the matter is that the GOP has rigorously argued that we need to cut NOW and we need to do so deeply.

Ok, so let’s judge a political party based on a combination of its rhetoric and its actions (with a further understanding that political reality deserves a place in such an evaluation as well). As such I would say that while the House Republicans have managed to do some cutting, as promised, at least in term of the continuing resolutions for this year’s fiscal cycle, I have been underwhelmed by the level of actual seriousness behind said actions. What I find especially striking about this is not just that I remain unconvinced that the GOP has a viable plan for addressing the real fiscal issues ahead, but that nevertheless, a lot of supporters of the GOP seem to think that things like cutting NPR actually do amounts to “doing something” about long-term fiscal issues.

Look, I understand the notion that a trip of 1,000 miles requires a first step, but the notion that cutting $10 million (the estimated savings from the NPR move) actually puts us on a road to dealing with, say, the long term costs of Medicare, is like saying walking from my dining room to the back of my house gets me closer to visiting my sister in Southern California. Technically, it’s true, but you would think I was crazy to assert that I had started a trip from Alabama to California with such a move. Further, the folly of my plan would come clear when I reached my back fence and declared that I had started the first leg of my journey and would figure out the rest later.

And yet, I see people greeting the proposed cuts to NPR as though they really are a legitimate first step towards a remade fiscal regime in Washington. For example, a commenter here at OTB likened it to a family with a job loss cutting out the cable as luxury that could no longer be afforded. Setting aside the question of whether the ol’ “government is like a family” metaphor has validity, let me suggest that the better analogy for the relative savings of the NPR cuts would be that the family fixed a slight drip in the kitchen sink to save a few pennies on the water bill per year.

In other words: I don’t think people, on balance, have any idea about the sums of money involved here or what needs to be done both in terms of spending and revenue. This is evident every time we see a poll noting that we should cut foreign aid to help with the budget without any understanding whatsoever about how little, relative to the budget, that line actually is. So instead of actual debate about these these we get ideological paeans that satisfy key constituents who can pretend “something is being done” when, in fact, it isn’t.

Again: I can accept the notion that small cuts are needed and that perhaps there are things that the federal government ought no be doing (or that we cannot afford for it to continue to do). However, we need to understand the relative fiscal consequences of these moves and to be honest about what the numbers mean.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Oooh, good use of simile.

    This isn’t cost-cutting it’s score-settling and base-pandering. If my math is correct (and it seldom is) the NPR cut saves the average American 3 cents.

    So, problem pretty much solved.

  2. james says:

    @ Steve

    Battle plans are obsolete the minute the ink is dry, dam the torpeados full speed ahead.

    Glad Washington went all the way across the Delaware.

    James from the flat lands of Texas

  3. george says:

    Ok, so let’s judge a political party based on a combination of it’s rhetoric and it’s actions (with a further understanding that political reality deserves a place in such an evaluation as well).

    Why not just on their actions? Many (probably most) people don’t trust much of what any politician says, simply because they tend to be very long on rhetoric and very short on action. Rhetoric is meaningless (or even fraud) if its not accompanied by honest efforts.

  4. Gregory says:

    I agree with Michael in that it’s “score settling and base-pandering,” but am willing to bet that I disagree with him, in that I see that as entirely appropriate. Both political parties pander to those who elect them, use the power they have to stick it to political opponents (and NPR and its devotees — as opposed to mere listeners like me are ideologically committed towards one side, against another), and consolidate power. So, I am totally unsympathetic towards Democrat-supporting institutions or organizations that find themselves on the block when, if the situation was different, and it was someone else’s funding, would be all for it. For that matter — not a matter of funding, but an analogous one — I didn’t see a lot of Democrat defenders of (largely conservative) talk radio when there was talk about reinstating the fairness doctrine a few years back — and I would not expect to.

    So, I’d be all right with those cuts. The real issues are, yes, that those cuts are far from being enough, and that they risk distracting us from the areas where other, more painful, but necessary cuts call to be made — Entitlements. And actually, as one of those swing voters critical of both left and right, I’d pretty pragmatically throw support behind whichever party was really willing to tackle that issue.

    Still, that’s no reason not to make these cuts. Let’s say, for sake of hypothesis, that the Republicans would not only defund NPR (of its federal dole — letting them go on to solicit funds from institutions and donors as they already do) but also go on and tackle entitlements, pushing through necessary cuts there — well, those would both be good, fiscally speaking. One would be a much greater good, but that does not take away the relative value of the lesser good

  5. Contracts says:

    @ James

    Your comment made me laugh, because “damming” the torpedoes strikes me as exactly analogous to cutting the small amount of funding at issue. In both cases, continuing the work (building a dam to stop torpedoes/bleeding the government to death through a thousand tiny cuts) would theoretically accomplish your aim, but both would take so long that they are practically worthless.

    And yes, I know you meant “damn” the torpedoes. But it was too beautiful the other way, and I rather enjoy the image of sailors trying to build a dam to protect their ships from (modern) torpedoes in the middle of a battle.

  6. TG Chicago says:

    @Gregory:

    For that matter — not a matter of funding, but an analogous one — I didn’t see a lot of Democrat defenders of (largely conservative) talk radio when there was talk about reinstating the fairness doctrine a few years back — and I would not expect to.

    There was precious little talk on the left about the fairness doctrine other than “What are the wingnuts on about now?” When Obama, in the first month of his presidency, went out of his way to repeat his campaign position that he was against reinstating it, it went from a non-issue to an anti-issue.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_02/016947.php

    So you’re claiming that something the right wing was scared about happening (even though it had virtually no support from Democrats, and was explicitly opposed by the top Democrat in office) is analogous to something that was actually voted on and passed by a GOP-majority House. Sorry, there is no analogy here.

  7. @Michael: Thanks! I appreciate you noticing and saying so.

    @Gregory: Speaking for myself, I oppose reimplementation of the Fairness Doctrine, although, as noted, it seems worth reiterating that there is no serious move to reinstate it (and that, really, this is isn’t even a direct opposite to the NPR debate). I also think that equated NPR as the other side of the talk radio coin (or the left side to the right side) is simply incorrect.

    And really, generically, I would underscore again that my point here is less about whether NPR should or should not be funded, but is an attempt to point out that anyone argues/thinks that it represents a serious attempt at fiscal responsibility simply doesn’t have a grasp on the numbers involved.

  8. john personna says:

    The cuts aren’t even real, right? They were made without any plan for Senate approval. Without any horse trading.

    So it’s worse. It’s a pretend $10M cut.

  9. So it’s worse. It’s a pretend $10M cut.

    Word.

  10. Davebo says:

    And as history has shown, from pretend fiscal conservatives.

  11. Max Lybbert says:

    What I find especially striking about this is not just that I remain unconvinced that the GOP has a viable plan for addressing the real fiscal issues ahead, but that nevertheless, a lot of supporters of the GOP seem to think that things like cutting NPR actually do amounts to “doing something” about long-term fiscal issues.

    Personally, I think the recent cuts via continuing resolution bills are encouraging but not nearly close to what’s needed (second graphic).

    However, I think there is a (weak) argument that cutting funds for NPR accomplishes something insofar as it means some sacred cows are finally on the table. The spending problem is so far our out of control that we there will need to be painful cuts in the budget over the next decade, and while voters continue to agree with that statement they also say “but don’t cut anything popular.” Looking at the graphic I linked to above, the popular programs are the worst offenders and will need to be slashed. To the extent that we’re finally making progress on that front (“it’s popular, but funding popular programs is a road to insolvency”) even $10 million at a time, we’re making progress.

  12. I think there is a (weak) argument that cutting funds for NPR accomplishes something insofar as it means some sacred cows are finally on the table.

    I understand where you are coming from, but since NPR isn’t a sacred cow to the GOP (indeed, quite the opposite), I am not sure that the notion holds.

  13. Max Lybbert says:

    NPR is definitely a sacred cow to the left. I remember an article from maybe a decade ago about NPR and PBS worrying that the number of Democrats going to bat for them had steadily declined from, say, Reagan’s administration.

    Likewise, social security, medicare, medicaid, defense, and several other sacred cows will have to be scaled back. Those battles will be much messier than this one.

  14. @Max:

    My point would be that I am not impressed when sacred cows are put on the block unless they are being put there by those for who said cow is sacred.

    It takes no special or impressive move for the GOP to offer up a Democratic sacred cow.

  15. Max Lybbert says:

    But it does take some fortitude to actually make the cut after 20+ years of stymied effort.

    I think it’s progress, but agree it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem. And I can’t see a balanced budget without cuts to a few GOP sacred cows down the road, notably defense and homeland security.

  16. @Max:

    The cut won’t make it past the Senate–so it is really a non-issue, yes?

  17. Max Lybbert says:

    Well, then, another $10 million cut is stymied after 20+ years of effort. That does make the prospects of a balanced budget much more obvious, yes.

  18. james says:

    @ Steve

    This Ship of State has no Rudder. (Leadership)