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Making the rounds reacting to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was asked why Republicans didn’t "cut their way to solvency" during the Bush administration in the 1990s.
Johnson, a deficit hawk elected in 2010, reacted to the word "cut."
"Nobody in total is proposing cutting anything. We’re trying to reduce the rate of growth in government," he said Feb. 13, 2013, on public radio station WUWM-FM (89.7) in Milwaukee. "And that’s what we need to do. The fact of the matter is, the extreme position is to do nothing on either Social Security or Medicare, because those programs are going broke."
The bitter partisan warfare over who is cutting what and by how much can obscure the true nature of various deficit-relief plans.
So let’s test Johnson’s claim that "nobody in total is proposing cutting anything." Rather, he claims, officials are "trying to reduce the rate of growth in government."
In the case of Johnson, we’ve been down this road before, but with the shoe on the other foot.
In defeating liberal Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010, it was Johnson who portrayed limits on spending growth in Medicare -- supported by Feingold in the federal health care law -- as "cuts" that would harm seniors.
Now it’s Johnson who complains that critics misconstrue caps on the rate of spending growth as "cuts."
Such is politics.
But let’s look at the core issue raised by Johnson’s comments.
In Johnson’s two years, have he and fellow Republicans advocated limits on federal spending growth -- or have they actually tried to shrink the budget from its current size?
Over the next decade, looking at federal spending as a whole, it’s clear that the intent is to slow the growth rate. You can see that in U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, in the sequester set to take effect in March 2013 and in various spending-cap proposals pushed by Republican lawmakers. To be sure, the measures propose significant and often controversial reductions in spending over multiple years compared with current rates of growth, but they do not shrink the budget below current spending over the course of a decade.
A few Johnson-specific examples:
He supported both Ryan budgets. He signed onto the Contract from America plan to put a per-capita inflation cap on spending growth. He backed a spending-cap proposal by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that tied spending to economic growth.
And Johnson’s comments in various forums, most recently in January, make clear he endorses limits on total growth.
In the Ryan budgets, it’s notable that in the first year of the 10-year projections, his blueprints called for spending less in year one than the year before.
Federal budget plans typically are framed in 10-year increments, though, and spending rises in every year but the first under his plans. So Johnson’s point is not knocked down by this, but it’s something to consider when evaluating his claim.
It’s also worth noting that Johnson praised the 2012 Ryan proposal but said it wasn’t aggressive enough in limiting growth.
When you look more narrowly at specific categories of spending, instead of the whole budget, Ryan’s proposals did indeed make actual year-to-year cuts -- and over the long-term.
Example: Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 plan proposed a cut in Medicaid outlays for that year, and didn’t get them back to the previous level until 2019.
And Ryan’s 2012 plan cut non-defense discretionary programs by 25 percent over 10 years.
Johnson, for his part, has endorsed enormous cuts on an agency-by-agency basis -- and even talks of eliminating some agencies entirely. In a January 2013 interview with The Daily Caller, Johnson said he’d go across the board.
"I truly believe that any of these agencies could easily withstand a 10 or 20 percent across the board cut and still be able to perform their function," he told reporter Alex Pappas.
Pappas quoted Johnson saying "an awful lot of these" agencies "probably have a harmful effect on the economy anyways, so I don’t necessarily want to maintain their function."
Johnson has also scoffed at the size of the looming cuts called for in the sequester, which supposedly was a poison pill so horrible that it would force lawmakers to compromise to avoid swallowing the automatic, across-the-board cuts. A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate said the sequester would cost the United States 750,000 jobs in 2013 alone.
Johnson said the sequester’s cuts over 10 years amount to "barely a rounding error" in the giant federal budget. He spoke on WTMJ-AM (620) radio in Milwaukee on February 14, 2013, about the sequester, which totals more than $1 trillion over a decade.
So it’s clear Johnson supports steep budget cuts in some areas in order to slow the overall budget’s growth curve.
Johnson said: "Nobody in total is proposing cutting anything. We’re trying to reduce the rate of growth in government."
While Johnson supports deep cutbacks in some budget areas, he and fellow Republicans repeatedly have made clear that in Washington budget-speak -- which typically covers 10-year increments -- they are talking about limiting the size of future spending increases.
Those growth limits likely would mean significant program changes and fewer federal employees.
But the budget would still grow overall.
We’ve examined similar claims. PolitiFact National debunked Democrats’ claims in 2011 that Ryan’s budget would "end" Medicare. And it declared Mostly False claims in 2010 by Republicans that the federal health care law cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare at the elderly’s expense.
Both ratings rested in part on the recognition that Medicare’s budget would continue to grow, just at a slower pace, under the cost-savings plans.
Johnson’s claim is something of a reverse image of those claims, though on a grander scale. With the points of clarification noted above, we think his main point is on target.
We rate his statement Mostly True.
WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio 89.7, audio of Sen. Ron Johnson interview, Feb. 13, 2013
Interview with Josh Gordon, policy director, The Concord Coalition, Feb. 14, 2013
Interview with David Kendall, senior fellow for health and fiscal policy, Third Way, Feb. 14, 2013
Email exchange with Brian Faughnan, spokesman, Sen. Ron Johnson, Feb. 13-15, 2013
PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter item, "Ron Johnson says Sen. Russ Feingold cut Medicare by $523 billion," Oct. 8, 2010
FactCheck.org, "Ryan’s budget spin," May 6, 2011
PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter item, "Former Reagan budget director says Ryan’s plan saves debt reduction for later," May 4, 2011
Rep. Paul Ryan’s FY 2012 and FY 2013 budget proposals
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Sen. Johnson wants stronger medicine than Ryan’s budget plan," April 29, 2011
Washington Post’s Wonkblog, "What Paul Ryan’s budget actually cuts -- and by how much," Aug. 12, 2012
Wall Street Journal, op-ed, "Daniel Mitchell: What’s really in the Ryan budget," from Cato Institute, Aug. 15, 2012
The Daily Caller, "Senator Ron Johnson on federal budgets: "I’m happy to start cutting agencies," Jan. 6, 2013
WTMJ, Charlie Sykes show, "Ron Johnson responds to SOTU address," audio, Feb. 14, 2013
On The Issues, Sen. Ron Johnson’s record, accessed Feb. 13, 2013
Sen. Ron Johnson’s office, fiscal charts, accessed Feb. 14, 2013
Sen. Ron Johnson on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, video, Jan. 4, 2013
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