02/27/2013 09:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Framing the Budget Conversation

President Obama seems to be playing a long game in the budget negotiations, as evidenced by the press blitz over the past few weeks. So far, the White House has been very effective in setting the direction of the conversation taking place over the budget. By doing so, they have laid the groundwork for a much more realistic conversation on the federal budget which is long overdue -- the specifics of what to cut. This gets into territory the Republicans have been shying away from for a very long time, for very good reason. Because when you get down to the details of what, exactly, to cut from the federal budget, the questions get a lot tougher than easily-tossed-off campaign rhetoric. To put this another way: Obama is opening a conversation with the American people into what our federal priorities should be. That's what has been missing from the political debate for a long time. So far, Obama seems to be dominating this argument.

The president knew he was going to lose the first of three upcoming budget battles. As early as two or three weeks ago, just about everyone inside the Beltway knew that the sequester was going to take place on schedule. The next budget battle -- over the "continuing resolution" which will keep the government funded for the rest of this budget year -- is going to be the big one, however. The third will (hopefully) never happen, as if any sort of Grand Bargain is reached, it will likely include an extension of the debt ceiling as part of the deal.

The American people, as always, want more from the federal government than we are willing to pay for. It's a historical fact -- it's been true throughout all of our history, back to 1776. We like government, but we hate taxes. We can't make up our minds, which current polling shows once again. When asked if (in the abstract) cutting federal government spending is a good idea, something like two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans agree. When asked specifically (program by program) where the cuts should be, large majorities agree -- on virtually every single program -- that spending should not be cut. We want it all, we want it now, and we certainly don't want to pay for it. It is just who we are, as a people.

What Obama has been doing has been highlighting the specifics, in a way that simply has not occurred throughout all the budget debates, cliffs, supercommittees, commissions, and crises of the past two years. By doing so, he is forcing the American public to confront the disconnect between wanting to cut "the federal budget," and also not wanting to cut any individual part of it.

The federal budget can be divided up into five large chunks. Four of those chunks are largely understood by the public. The fifth is where the rubber meets the road, and is what Obama has been pointing out in the sequester debate.

The four everyone can wrap their minds around easily are: interest on the national debt, the Pentagon, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid. All these subjects are easy to identify, so when the budget talks bring them up, everyone is fairly comfortable with the boundaries of the discussion. The fifth and largely unknown part of the budget is a kind of "everything else" category, where all other money the feds spend is lumped together as: "discretionary spending." This discretionary spending is what the White House has been highlighting for over a week, hand-in-hand with highlighting the sequester cuts to the Pentagon's budget.

Now, if you conducted a poll, I bet Americans would be just as willing to "cut federal discretionary spending" as they are willing (in the abstract) to "cut the federal budget." I'd further predict that Republicans would probably poll overwhelmingly in favor of such cuts. "Discretionary" doesn't sound all that important, so we can cut that stuff, right?

Republicans have always been in favor of cutting the discretionary chunk of the budget, in general. Or, at the very least, more willing to cut discretionary money than, say, the Pentagon's budget. Many Republicans see discretionary spending as all that "nanny state" liberal stuff that they'd just as soon not fund at all.

Problem is, discretionary spending includes all sorts of things. Sure, there are programs conservatives have been trying to kill for decades (the Department of Education springs immediately to mind). But there are also a whole lot of things which are (or should be) non-partisan and neutral, even in the midst of a budget fracas. These would be the things that virtually nobody could make an argument against -- things like food inspectors and air traffic controllers. While Republicans might argue that this or that item in this category could have its funding trimmed, they're (at least) not fundamentally or ideologically opposed to any of them.

But what Obama has so far been doing a pretty good job of pointing out is that there is also a third sub-category of discretionary spending that Republicans are actually strongly for. These mostly fall under the "law and order" umbrella. Things like the Border Patrol, federal prosecutors, the F.B.I., the T.S.A., and pretty much all the other alphabet-soup agencies which make up the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department. So even "discretionary spending" has things in it which Republicans likely wouldn't drastically cut, given the chance.

This is what Obama has been laying on the table in the past week, card by card. You want across-the-board budget cuts? Well then, guess what? Fewer Border Patrol agents. That's the way it works. Fewer anti-terrorism dollars. Because that's part of the discretionary slice of the budget pie.

This has been a good argument for the president to make, and it has already laid the groundwork for the upcoming (and much bigger, with a government shutdown as the threat) budget battle over the continuing resolution. The government can't spend money past the end of March, so we've got another three or four weeks of this fight.

Up until now, politicians could argue their budget priorities in shorthand. This has allowed Republicans to get away with hiding behind the vague nature of the label "discretionary spending." While everyone knows what the Republican and Democratic priorities are on things like the Pentagon budget, Social Security, or Medicare, all other federal spending was conveniently brushed under the discretionary rug. The much-vaunted Paul Ryan budget plan had precious few statistics on how discretionary spending would be cut -- he would have just "let the committees deal with that" instead of laying out what to cut himself. Mitt Romney ran on a campaign platform of "trust me -- I'll cut a bunch of stuff, but I'm not going to tell you what!" for the entire election season. Up until now, Republicans have been able to avoid specifics when it comes to the last chunk of the federal budget.

Entering into the next round of budgetary battling, what is the media now talking about? The particulars of discretionary spending. What are the arguments revolving around? This or that agency's budget priorities. What are the "scare stories" the Republicans are denouncing? Actual, tangible cuts in what the federal government actually does -- not some pie in the sky "let's just cut the budget" campaign-trail hoo-hah. The conversational conventional wisdom inside the Beltway has visibly shifted -- right before the real debate begins over what the federal budget will contain for the next six months (and, if a real "grand bargain" is met, perhaps the next eighteen months).

President Obama will not be able to stop the sequester. But, as with any shift in federal spending, it won't happen overnight. If a deal can be reached in March, then most of the sequester's impact can be adjusted before the worst of it happens. The main budget battle is just beginning this Friday, not ending. So far, President Obama has done an excellent job of laying out exactly what the Republicans don't want to talk about in public -- that when the federal budget is cut, it has real and lasting consequences to the American economy and to what the American government does for the people. The budget conversation will now revolve around: "OK, if you don't want to cut the budget of Agency X or Bureau Y, then what exactly do you think we should cut instead?" This is a much more realistic discussion to have, and it is one that -- up until the White House began the conversation last week -- has so far been long overdue.


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