The Fundamental Problem with a Spending Freeze

President Obama's 2011 budget comes out today, and the big story is the big numbers:

--$3.8 trillion overall spending.
--$1.55 trillion deficit in 2010.
--$1.27 trillion deficit in 2011.

I'll be blogging my way through the budget's particulars througout the day, but first I wanted to make a small but important point about a small (but politically important) part of the new budget: The spending freeze on non-security discretionary spending.

As a fulcrum, the threat of a spending freeze is potentially useful because it pressures lawmakers to find inefficient programs. As an economic policy, it is not so useful. The OMB has a list of programs where it would like to see cuts. This list includes some public works projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, two historic preservation programs and NASA's mission to return to the Moon. According to my dreamworld, they also include significant cuts to agricultural subsidies, which are bad for small farmers, bad for free markets and bad for our waistlines.

But, as Matt Yglesias points out, what if the administration doesn't get those cuts? Rather than dispel with the idea of a freeze altogether, it's more likely that they will feel bound by the spending freeze promise and find cuts in departments that they hoped to preserve, like science research and some green technology projects. The reasons for the cuts won't be that the programs are necessarily over-funded, but that their constituents aren't as loud. So while it's defensible to argue that the spending freeze could put the squeeze on earmarks, it's also possible that some nefarious earmarks like agricultural subsidies will survive and frostbite will touch programs the administration supports.