The Case for Across-the-Board Spending Cuts


Claims to support a ‘scalpel’ over a ‘meat ax’ become excuses for doing nothing.

 You know the cliché: America’s fiscal condition might be grim, but lawmakers should avoid the “meat ax” of across-the-board spending cuts and instead use the “scalpel” of targeted reductions. The problem with this argument is that, given today’s politics, it is nonsensical.

Targeted reductions would be welcome, but the current federal budget didn’t drop from the sky. Every program in the budget—from defense to food stamps, agriculture, Medicare and beyond—is in place for a reason: It has advocates in Congress and a constituency in the country. These advocates won’t sit idly by while their programs are targeted, whether by a scalpel or any other instrument. That is why targeted spending cuts have historically been both rare and small. And in a government as closely divided as today’s, there is virtually no prospect for meaningful targeted spending cuts.

The most likely way to achieve significant reductions in spending is by across-the-board cuts. Each reduction of 1% in the $3.6 trillion federal budget would yield roughly $36 billion the first year and would reduce the budget baseline in future years. Even with modest reductions, this is real money.

Some would inevitably argue that these cuts are unfair. Is the current budget fair? Everyone knows that a $3.6 trillion budget isn’t the happy result of Congress providing exactly what is “fair” to every program. The federal budget is the result of temporary and arbitrary political compromises, with each program funded as much as its advocates can get it and as little as its detractors can support.

There is no transcendent wisdom here, nor any argument that a federal budget that preserves the current allocation of spending, but at a slightly lower level, is somehow less fair.

So let’s give up the politically pointless effort to pick and choose among programs, accept the political reality of current allocations, and reduce everything proportionately. No one program would be very much disadvantaged. In many cases, a 1% or 3% reduction would scarcely be noticed. Are we really to believe that a government that spent $2.7 trillion five years ago couldn’t survive a 3% cut that would bring spending to “only” $3.5 trillion today? Every household, company and nonprofit organization across America can do this, as can state and local governments. So could Washington.

Across-the-board federal cuts would have to include all programs—no last-minute reprieves for alternative-energy programs, filmmakers or any other cause. All parties would know that they are being treated equally. Defense programs, food-stamp recipients, retired federal employees, the judiciary, Social-Security recipients, veterans and members of Congress—each would join to make a minor sacrifice. It would be a narrative of civic virtue.

Applying across-the-board cuts to both discretionary and nondiscretionary programs would present some technical legislative difficulties, and some members of Congress will certainly try to argue that, while they support spending reduction, they just couldn’t abide a certain cut or two. Yet this very argument would illustrate that opposition comes not because cuts are unfair, but because they are equally leveled.

Talk of axes versus scalpels is designed to deflect reform. Whatever carefully targeted budget cuts might animate our dreams, the actual world of divided government suggests only one realistic way to achieve real spending reductions. It is not a meat ax. A scalpel that shaves a bit off all programs equally would work just fine.

Mr. Bergner, an adjunct professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., has served as a congressional staffer and as an assistant secretary of state. This op-ed appeared in the WSJ Monday edition

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