WASHINGTON – Terms like "cutting spending" and "raising taxes," though they sound straightforward enough, are becoming battlegrounds in the Republicans' and Democrats' bids to frame the debate over how to cope with the growing national debt.
Newly empowered congressional Republicans are playing down the big impact their proposed spending cuts would have on millions of Americans, according to Democrats and some bipartisan groups.
Prominent Republicans, for instance, have said a return to 2008 spending levels would not amount to "cutting," even though billions of federal dollars would be lopped off. Another GOP leader minimized the economic impact of firing thousands of federal workers, saying overall employment would rise.
Bill Hoagland, a former Republican budget aide now with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said many elected officials are misleading the public. It's easy to say that eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" will balance the budget, he said, but the huge programs that must be reined in include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are barely being discussed.
People talk about "cutting the government," Hoagland said, "but the real problems come right out of our pockets." That's true of those "entitlement" programs, he said, as well as federal highways, border security, education and other programs.
Although Republicans are leading the budget talks for now, Democrats also have been coy about fiscal realities. They have defined the middle class as families making up to $250,000, and said a return to higher Bush-era tax rates would not constitute a tax increase.
And both parties have given only lip service to addressing the most costly and fast-growing programs cited by Hoagland: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
House conservatives have vowed to slash domestic programs even more deeply than their party leaders have proposed.
The Republican Study Committee, whose conservatives comprise about three-fourths of all House Republicans, called Thursday for bringing domestic agency budgets to their 2006 levels. That's about a $175 billion cut from current levels, and roughly $90 billion more than the cuts promised by Republicans last fall.
The proposed cuts, which Senate Democrats are likely to soften or reject, would fall entirely on "discretionary" programs like education, environmental protection, agriculture and the Justice Department. Left untouched would be the military, homeland security, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Some Republicans, however, have said they are now willing to put the military on the cutting board, too.
The GOP study committee would reduce Pell Grants and eliminate entire programs, all of which have advocates in Congress and elsewhere. They include the national endowments for the arts and the humanities; the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal help to people who can't afford a lawyer; Amtrak subsidies; and community development grants popular with local officials.
The White House says the plan would force the firing of about 3,000 food inspectors, 4,000 FBI agents, 800 Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents, 1,500 drug enforcement agents, 900 U.S. marshals and 5,700 correctional officers.
National unemployment, at 9.4 percent, is a chief worry for both parties. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, suggested that cutting the government will boost overall employment, even when it involves big federal layoffs.
"We actually think, if you reduce federal government spending, you help create jobs, you help foster a framework and an environment where the real job-creators can do what they do, create jobs and improve our economy," he told reporters Thursday. His office said it's not aware of studies directly addressing the issue, but it believes "government spending takes money out of the private economy that could otherwise be used by families and businesses with more efficiency, innovation, and lasting job creation."
Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., defended the House GOP leadership's earlier call for somewhat less dramatic spending reductions, which would return most non-military agencies to 2008 levels.
"We're not talking about cutting," Dreier told his committee. "We're talking about getting to '08 levels, which provides a high level of funding for (health research), Pell Grants and for food and drug safety."
Under the GOP leaders' proposals, funds to pay Food and Drug Administration workers would fall by 35 percent, more than $1 billion. College Pell Grants would be cut by more than $1,000 from the current $5,550 maximum.
Chad Stone, chief economist for the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said it's misleading to contend that those are not cuts. Federal budgets have grown in recent years partly because of population growth, recession-fueled public needs and modest inflation, he said.
"Going back to an earlier level is absolutely a cut," Stone said.
In the Capitol Friday, some lawmakers and advocates scoffed at the proposed spending cuts, saying many of them will face powerful defenders of the targeted programs. The GOP study committee would ax the Appalachian Regional Commission, saving $76 million a year. The office of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky includes parts of Appalachia, did not respond to a query about the proposed cut.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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