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Washington's definition of a budget 'cut'

There are a few simple words in the English language that are universally understood.

In 1998, President Clinton, caught in the Lewinsky scandal, strained our imagination when he uttered this now infamous line: “It depends what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Is, is the 3rd person singular, present indicative of the verb, “be,” and no amount of presidential posturing can change that.

There is another simple little word that is almost universally misunderstood, at least as it is applied in the nation’s Capitol. It is the word “cut.” Unlike the word “is,” cut has many definitions. However, all of them are quite simple with one big exception. The definition of cut that is fraught with complexities inside the Washington Beltway is “to lower, reduce, diminish, or curtail.”

It is understandable that the average citizen was a bit confused Friday night when a late-night deal on the 2011 budget was announced which prevented a government shutdown. The parties involved in working out the compromise each gave their take on the amount of budget “cuts” that were in that agreement but they were billions apart.

House Republicans had pressed for $69 billion in cuts. They got $38.5 billion. However, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke, he announced $78.5 billion in cuts.

Was it $38 billion or $78 billion?

It all depends on how the term “cut” is defined. Reid was referring to cuts from the 2011 budget request President Obama introduced in the spring of 2010 which was never passed and is therefore mythical.

The $38 billion represents (for the most part) what you and I would recognize as a real cut. That means the budget for domestic, discretionary spending for FY 2011 should be $38 billion smaller than it was in 2010. In Washington, this is rare, extremely rare!

In Washington, a “cut” is when you don’t get to spend everything you wanted to spend if money were no object – and with an uninformed or unconcerned electorate – money has been no object! Each year, Washington’s number crunchers assume every program will grow by an unrealistic amount. They work from something called the “current services” or “baseline” to make sure that every line item will increase because of population growth, increased demand, inflation and dozens of other factors that are all designed to make sure that everything grows and grows and grows.

Price reductions, decreased use, increased efficiency, etc. are never taken into consideration. The whole process is skewed to make it look as if a program that is growing by leaps and bounds is stable or one that got a 4 percent increase, instead of the requested 7 or 8 percent increase, has been “cut.”

Therefore, most of the “cuts” you hear about in Washington aren’t really cuts at all, and the moaning you hear from affected constituencies is overblown hyperbole designed to fool us again.

Make no mistake, if Democrats still controlled both Houses of Congress, the 2011 Obama budget would have been used as a spending floor, not as a ceiling. Every dollar of increased spending would have added to the “baseline” and would have doubled and tripled down the road. The bargain House Republicans reached with Senate Democrats and President Obama was an important first step but it was minuscule.

Last week, a friend expressed her exasperation to me over the budget stalemate and the possibility of a government shutdown. She said, “Why can’t Republicans just compromise and why doesn’t Congress cut its own budget?” I explained that when Republicans took control of the House, the very first thing they did was to cut lawmakers’ budgets by 5 percent. My friend responded, “That’s nothing!”

Precisely! The $38.5 billion dollar cut in the 2011 budget means domestic discretionary spending should fall by 4 percent after ballooning 21 percent (10 times the rate of inflation) in just two years. It is nothing! It’s roughly 1 percent of the overall bloated federal budget. And Democrats were acting as though the world was coming to an end.

Republicans must draw a line in the sand over the 2012 budget and refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Then, and only then, will we see some meaningful cuts to the federal budget.

House Speaker John Boehner is quick to remind us that Republicans control only one-half of one-third of the government. True, but it’s the part of the government in which all spending bills must originate. Not a dime can be spent unless the House says it can be spent. If it means a government shutdown, let it happen. They simply must hold the line! If not, the country is going over a financial cliff.