Can Seven Reports Be Wrong About the Risks of Spending Cuts? GOP Says Yes

jill-lawrence

Jill Lawrence

Senior Correspondent
Posted:
02/28/11
Could two independent economic reports, a liberal think tank and four bipartisan reports on debt reduction be wrong? They all conclude that slashing federal spending this year could cause job losses and threaten the economic recovery.

The latest report, from Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, says 700,000 jobs could be lost by the end of 2012 if Republicans succeed in their quest to cut $60 billion from domestic programs this year. Cuts and tax increases are necessary to address the nation's long-term fiscal problems, Zandi said, but "cutting too deeply before the economy is in full expansion would add unnecessary risk." The report largely echoes earlier analyses by Alec Phillips of Goldman Sachs and the Center for American Progress.

House Speaker John Boehner famously responded, when asked about potential job losses earlier this month, "so be it." On Monday his office pointed to a new counter argument offered by Stanford economist John Taylor – that "a credible plan to reduce the deficit" will help the economy, not hurt it, and that $60 billion – the amount the other analyses assume will be cut this year – is an inaccurate, inflated figure.

Taylor is a former Bush administration official based at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford; last year he received an award from the conservative Bradley Foundation. Zandi, founder and chief economist at Moody's, was an adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. However, he is a registered Democrat. (Update: Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, named by Republican George W. Bush and re-appointed by President Barack Obama, also disputes the Zandi and Phillips reports).

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel called Zandi "a relentless cheerleader for the failed 'stimulus,'" who "refuses to understand that ending the spending binge will help the private sector." That led the Chicago Tribune's Mike Memoli to tweet, "Today, GOP discredits Mark Zandi. Last fall, cited his analysis in arguing against tax hikes."

It is an article of faith among Republicans that 2009 stimulus package has "failed." But the Obama administration, Zandi and many others disagree with that assessment. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus created or saved up to 3.5 million jobs, raised the GDP and stabilized an economy that had been in free-fall.

There is no sign the stimulus will ever be anything but a partisan flashpoint. Yet there is bipartisan consensus to be found in the reports from various deficit and debt commissions. They are unanimous in suggesting either increased stimulus or steady government spending in 2011.

"Don't disrupt the fragile recovery," the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform warned in December. Its plan – adopted by 11 of the 18 panel members – calls for "serious belt-tightening" to begin in 2012. A report from the Bipartisan Policy Center suggested gradually phasing in steps to reduce deficits and debt "beginning in 2012, so the economy will be strong enough to absorb them." The 2009 Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform put off cuts to the same year, as did a recent proposal from Brookings fellow Bill Galston and Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

MacGuineas has mixed feelings about the GOP drive to slash spending and slash it now. "It's good that we're actually talking about spending reductions" instead of putting it off, she said in an interview. "On the one hand, that's helpful. On the other hand, they are focusing on the wrong time frame -- this year instead of this decade, and focusing on the wrong part of the budget -- a very thin slice instead of the real problem areas" such as Medicare and Medicaid.

The ideal scenario in the view of MacGuineas and the bipartisan commissions would be for politicians serious about debt reduction to spend 2011 on a long-term plan to reduce domestic and defense spending, raise taxes, ensure long-term health for Social Security and solve the riddle of controlling Medicare and Medicaid costs. "The right model is to put in place this year a multiyear plan to get there," MacGuineas said, adding she has high hopes for a bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

The skirmishes over spending – destined to repeat themselves constantly this year as Congress confronts potential government shutdowns and loan defaults – have provided political fodder for all sides. Democrats seized on Boehner's initial response to the prospect of job losses and now refer often to the GOP's "so be it" jobs policy. Republicans, though they only control half of Congress, are making good on promises to the tea party movement and other voters who put a premium on cutting government spending.

If Republicans can't secure Senate passage and Obama's signature for their spending cuts, they will have at least made clear to their base that they tried. If by some political miracle they win the $60 billion in cuts they are seeking, and the recovery picks up, they can take credit. If the economy dips back into crisis, or even if the jobless rate is flat, they can blame Obama and bolster their case to take back the White House.

Unless of course Obama and the Democrats, equipped with who knows how many reports by then, figure out a way to blame them first.

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