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Taking a Hatchet to the Facts

Ken Baer of the Office of Management and Budget explains how an AP piece got it wrong on the President's call for a budget freeze.

Sometimes fact checkers need to check their own facts.

Writing for the AP, Cal Woodward asserts that the President’s proposed three-year non-security discretionary freeze represents a shift in position from the campaign since, then-candidate Obama said: "The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel." (Apparently, he missed Tuesday's blogpost explaining the "budget freeze" from my Administration colleague, Jared Bernstein).

Yet, the three-year spending freeze on non-security discretionary spending is not the same as an across-the-board cut (the hatchet approach).  First, the freeze does not affect key security agencies – Homeland Security, Defense, State, and Veterans Affairs – or mandatory programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Second, the freeze is a top-line, aggregate freeze across a broad category of spending.  Within that overall spending level, there will be some departments that are increased – such as education which sees a 6.2 percent increase and some that are reduced.  Within departments, there will be some programs that are increased and some that are reduced or eliminated.  The choices will be strategic: investing in programs that work and cutting what does not, and prioritizing those investments that will drive job creation and  economic strength over the long-term – areas like education, clean energy, and infrastructure. But don’t take my word for it, read what the AP had to say just a few days ago: “Some of those agencies could get increases, others would have to face cuts.”  If the President’s plan were a “hatchet” job, all agencies and all programs would be cut.

Woodward also dismisses that President’s pledge that he will “go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work. We've already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.”  According to the AP fact checker, “Identifying savings is far from achieving them. If the past is any guide, little will result from this exercise because Congress routinely rejects the White House's suggested spending cuts.”

Woodward is right that there is a difference between calling for savings and achieving them, but if the past of this Administration is any guide, it has been unusually successful in winning these cuts. In his 2010 Budget, President Obama sought to end or reduce 121 programs for a one-year savings of approximately $17 billion of which $11.5 billion was from discretionary savings.  Congress approved cuts that produced a net discretionary savings of $6.8 billion, nearly 60 percent of the discretionary cuts proposed. According to the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, this far exceeds the best the last Administration did (40 percent), and far exceeds the less than 15 percent success rate they had in their last two years in office (PDF).  In fact, the conservative Washington Times was so impressed with the cuts we were able to achieve that they touted it on their front page!

Kenneth Baer is Associate Director for Communications and Strategic Planning