The fading dream that this Congress might ever rise to a level of modest responsibility on spending took a big hit Thursday. House leaders were forced to pull a budget reconciliation bill that would have cut spending over the next five years by about $53.9 billion — a drop in the fiscal bucket.
How much spending reduction — actually reductions in projected spending increases, not actual cuts — are we talking about here? Not much.
The federal government is projected, under current budget assumptions, to spend about $7.8 trillion (that’s with a “t”) over the next five years on entitlements alone. Reducing that spending by $54 billion would be a reduction of just over one-half of 1 percent in projected spending.
As a Heritage Foundation analysis put it, it’s analogous to a family of four with a $50,000 annual income finding a way to pay off an emergency-room bill that amounted to $250 over five years. Most families could do it by forgoing candy bars.
Another way to look at it is to analyze the impact on projected spending growth. Mandatory, or entitlement, spending has increased by 28 percent over the past four years, so it has hardly been starved. Under the current budget it is projected to grow by 39 percent over the next five years. If the cuts in the bill the House put aside Thursday were enacted, spending on entitlements over the next five years would be reduced by all of 1 percent.
That’s right, spending would increase by 38 percent rather than 39 percent — over five years.
That this could be spun into doomsday for entitlement recipients, who will not see current payments cut, but only a reduction in proposed increases, is a tribute to the poverty of American political understanding.
That this modest bow to fiscal responsibility should fail — at a time when federal deficits are hovering around $500 billion a year and the unexpected costs associated with Hurricane Katrina and avian flu are pending — suggests that the political class has lost touch with reality.