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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Dems, GOP Exaggerate Spending ‘Cuts’

Senate Democratic leaders, under pressure from Republicans to cut the budget, have been misleading the public by claiming they already have "cut" spending by $41 billion.

The fact is that the Democrats haven’t "cut" any spending. Congress hasn’t passed a budget for fiscal year 2011, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says federal spending continues to rise.

First a little background: House Republicans passed legislation in the early morning of Feb. 19 that would fund the federal government for fiscal year 2011. The Republicans say the bill includes about $61 billion less for non-security discretionary spending compared with fiscal year 2010 and about $100 billion less for non-security discretionary spending compared with President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request. (The 2011 budget year began Oct. 1, 2010, but Congress hasn’t passed a budget yet and the federal government has been operating on a stop-gap measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR.) 

The next day Democrats were asked about the budget cuts on the Sunday talk shows. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and "Meet the Press" host David Gregory had this exchange:

Durbin: David, understand the starting point. We’ve already cut $41 billion below the president’s budget for this fiscal year in this — the way we’re currently funding our government. And now the question is: How much further should we go? And there are serious questions to be answered.

Gregory: But Democrats haven’t actually cut anything. But, senator, they haven’t actually — you haven’t actually cut anything because there was no budget last year.

Durbin: Well that’s wrong, David, we have.

Gregory: What cuts have you…

Durbin: No, no, that’s wrong.

Gregory: There’s — the $41 billion is just less than the level that it was funded at before.

Durbin: No, it’s less than the amount asked for by the president for this year, $41 billion below it, and the House has gone $100 billion below it. And so let’s be very candid, both sides have made cuts. The question is: What is the right thing to do at this moment?

A similar verbal joust occurred between Sen. Claire McCaskill and "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace:

Wallace: They want $61 billion from current spending. How much are you willing to cut from current spending?

McCaskill: Well, I think certainly there’s on the table a $41 billion cut. I think that —

Wallace: Wait, wait, Senator, that’s a — that’s a phony cut because that is $41 billion from the president’s budget, that’s — that which hasn’t ever been enacted. It — it would actually not cut at all from current spending.

Durbin’s office told us that the senator was referring to the continuing appropriations resolution passed in December that keeps the government funded until March 4. That legislation allowed for spending in fiscal year 2011 to continue at the same levels as fiscal year 2010 on a temporary basis until a final spending bill can be passed. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who also has talked about a $41 billion spending cut, told us that the continuing resolution is spending at a rate of $41 billion below the president’s request for fiscal year 2011 — so therefore the Democrats can claim they cut spending by $41 billion.

But it’s not a cut in spending. The CBO says in a January report that discretionary spending — that is, funding Congress controls through the annual appropriations acts — continues to rise:

CBO, January 2011: Although discretionary programs are currently operating under a continuing resolution that, until March 4, 2011, holds funding mostly at 2010 levels, outlays will continue to rise, by CBO’s estimate. (Under the rules that govern its baseline, CBO assumes full-year funding for 2011 based on amounts provided under the continuing resolution.) CBO estimates that discretionary outlays in 2011 will be $26 billion (or about 2 percent) higher than in 2010. Most of the increase ($23 billion) is in outlays for defense programs, mainly from previous appropriations for operations and maintenance.

CBO anticipates that nondefense discretionary outlays will edge up by $3 billion. Nondefense outlays from ARRA-related funding will total $73 billion in 2011, a drop of $20 billion relative to 2010. But that decline is more than offset by increases in outlays for other nondefense discretionary programs, including international development, humanitarian aid, and security assistance ($5 billion) and hospital and medical care for veterans ($4 billion).

Now, you may hear House Republicans make reference to having "cut" $100 billion in spending, as House Speaker John Boehner did on his blog Feb. 22: "Early Saturday morning, the House passed H.R. 1, an historic $100 billion spending cut …" That’s not true, either.

As explained earlier, the House bill that passed Feb. 19 reduced non-security discretionary spending by $61 billion from fiscal year 2010. It’s only a $100 billion "cut" compared with the president’s budget proposal — a fact that is sometimes left out of the discussion. A chart compiled by the Republican staff for the House Committee on Appropriations shows that the actual cut in spending is $61 billion.