Why Can't Republicans Name One Thing to Cut in the Budget?

You're a newly elected Republican congressman. For the last six months, you've been railing against trillions in federal spending. Once elected, you've promised to cut $100 billion from the budget in the first fiscal year. Now it's prime time, the mic is in your face, the camera closes in, and asked for one program to cut, you slam your first and respond with patriotic passion ...

"I don't think I have one off the top of my head."

I'm not imagining a hypothetical, here. Nor am I picking on some newly minted carpenter-turned-Tea-Party-congressman who got blindsided on his way out of the Cannon building. Instead I'm quoting from House Speaker John Boehner's answer the world's most predictable question from NBC's Brian Williams: Name one program you'd like to cut.

A broken campaign promise isn't cause to wheel out the fainting couches. It is, depressingly, a prerogative of the winning party. Republicans, who have already halved their promised spending cuts for this year and exempted health care's repeal from their own budget rules, are putting that prerogative to good use in their first two weeks in office.

But with the Democratic president on record proposing a salary freeze for the entire government and the Republican leadership on record proposing nothing off the top of my head, you have to wonder why the GOP is refusing to get specific.

The progressive interpretation would be that the right is totally hackish. The moderate progressive interp would be that the right doesn't want to go on record with spending cuts before the official list is out. The pragmatic interpretation might be that the $60 in planned FY2012 cuts are up to Rep. Paul Ryan, and Boehner doesn't want to step on the toes of his budget chair. But still, the head of the Republican Party really can't name a single government program he'd like to cut?

It's not as though this promise is an empty shell. You can find some substance in this paper, How to Cut the Budget, by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation. He proposes $343 billion in available cuts for the next year -- six times more aggressive than the GOP's promises  -- from $15 billion in agricultural subsidies to $26 billion in reduced tax credits for low-income families.

Do I agree with these cuts for this year's budget? No, I don't. And to be fair, even Riedl acknowledged that most of the cuts were impossible with Obama in the White House, or unlikely to survive the special interests inherent to Washington. The point of the paper, he told me, was to say: Of course health care, Social Security and defense dominate the budget, but we can still find major cuts in non-security domestic spending.

Riedl offers an obvious menu for even the most clueless conservative representatives looking for illustrative cuts. Why aren't House Republicans ordering off the list?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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