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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cold Confusion

The news that the president is going to propose a three-year “freeze” on appropriations for non-defense discretionary programs (with veterans and homeland security programs exempted) is creating a lot of consternation among progressives today.
But folded into this consternation is a significant amount of confusion. The term “budget freeze,” long the default-drive Republican fiscal austerity “idea,” usually connotes an across-the-board flatlining of spending in non-exempt accounts, a total commitment to the budgetary status quo that neatly allows its proponents to avoid separating sheep from goats and offending any constituency for any particular program. If that’s what Obama was proposing, it would indeed be inconsistent with any new jobs initiative, or indeed, with key elements of the “middle-class relief” agenda the administration just announced. But that’s not what he is proposing; it is instead really an overall spending “cap” under which specific programs could be increased or decreased, presumably depdending on their usefullness in creating jobs or other worthy social goods. It’s an approach that Bill Clinton, back in 1992, called “cut and invest.”
Since it’s Congress, not the administration, that will actually make appropriations decisions, and since Members of Congress and the committees they chair which often serve as the most powerful constituencies for programs with little real justification, it can definitely be argued that any real “freeze” would look more like the across-the-board variety (indeed, that’s what happened to Clinton’s “cut and invest” budget when Congress got its hands on it in 1993). Alternatively, it can be argued that the whole thing is mainly rhetorical, given public concerns about government spending.
But in conjunction with the president’s push for a bipartisan “deficit commission” that would be emppwered to make recommendations on long-term budget savings that would be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote, the “freeze” proposal, whatever it actually means, will definitely upset progressives fearing that Obama is “going Hoover” in economic policy. And make no mistake, there’s one objection to the “freeze” idea that’s not based on confusion: if you really do believe that the federal government needs to be running larger short-term deficits in order to provide Keynsian stiimulus to consumer demand, then any domestic spending limits, however selective in application, will strike you as a very bad approach.

One comment on “Cold Confusion

  1. mjshep on

    Unfortunately, Obama seems more intent on elevating conservative, Republican memes than he does liberal, Democratic ones.
    The only thing he seems energized to fight is the progressive left of his own party. The question that disturbs me is whether Obama is really as weak, detached and indecisive as he appears or if we were snookered by a politician who talked a progressive game of change and always intended to deliver more corporate, DLC, so-called moderate policy.
    Either way, it’s disheartening.


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