I don’t really want to write about undefined spending freezes all day, but the thing that sticks out like a sore thumb in what we know of this proposal is that the idea of a freeze on “non-security discretionary spending” reeks of politics rather than budgetary substance. There’s a real budgetary rationale for treating the spending and tax sides independently. And there’s also a real budgetary rationale for treating entitlements separately from discretionary issues, since the formal legislative process for these topics works differently. But the security / non-security distinction doesn’t hold up that way at all.
Security programs are important. But so are domestic programs. If the contention is that we need to scrutinize individual programs for efficacy on a “cut and invest” model, then why on earth doesn’t that apply to the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs? It’s worth noting that the line here is pretty arbitrary. A lot of Homeland Security functions were in the Department of Transportation 10 years ago and thus defined as “domestic.” Conversely, many Energy Department programs actually relate to nuclear weapons research and many Justice Department public safety programs have at least some relevance to counterterrorism. The point is that if there’s a budgetary need to cap overall spending at some level and then subject things to individualized scrutiny, then that should apply to everything.
Refusal to apply it across-the-board is a GOP political gambit that the White House has now taken up, it’s not a real approach to any kind of economic issues. Noam Scheiber channels some administration officials to try to put a respectable face on this with the argument that “the administration needs some signal to U.S. bondholders that it takes the deficit seriously” but I’m not sure what kind of sense that makes. Bondholders really concerned about the situation can bore into detail and find that there’s nothing especially reassuring about this move. It’s clearly aimed at people who don’t have a particularly firm grasp of the overall budget situation—professional political reporters, low-information swing voters, Evan Bayh, etc.