WASHINGTON -- Any effort to balance the budget by cutting non-defense discretionary spending -- largely social programs targeted to benefit working- and middle-class Americans, as President Barack Obama is proposing for fiscal 2012 -- is destined to fail. That's not the subjective judgment of liberal backers of government spending, it's just simple math.
The entire non-defense discretionary budget for 2010 was $491 billion. That rises to $496 billion for 2011 before falling to $462 billion in 2012.
Compare that figure to the deficit: $1.6 trillion in 2011 and $1.1 trillion in 2012. At no time over the next decade, according to the budget forecast, will the deficit fall below $770 billion, meaning that cutting every penny in social spending would still leave the government in the hole.
The entire federal budget, including entitlements and war spending, is $3.7 trillion, meaning that the social spending Obama is targeting amounts to 12 percent of the overall budget. Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks -- not poor people -- because that's where the money is.
Getting serious about closing the deficit would mean investing in growth, which boosts revenues but costs money in the short term, and raising taxes on the wealthy. The tax-cut deal Obama struck with the GOP cost $858 billion over just two years -- roughly equal to all of the nondefense discretionary spending over that period.
While targeting social spending may not make an appreciable dent in the deficit, it can do real damage to the social safety net over time. Under Obama's plan, the relative size of non-defense discretionary spending would plummet by one-quarter in the next decade. Such spending equals 9 percent of the total budget by 2021, according to the president's projections.
Yet such massive reductions don't come close to satisfying deficit hawks. Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chair of Obama's deficit commission, said he thinks the proposed cuts are "nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare."