March 31, 2003 

by Richard Kogan and Robert Greenstein

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The budget plan that the House of Representatives passed on March 21, 2003, includes a “reconciliation directive” that requires 13 House committees to cut mandatory programs by specified amounts. This directive also gives vast, unprecedented authority to the House Government Reform Committee to cut programs in other committees’ jurisdictions.

Under the House budget plan, the Government Reform Committee could approve cuts in any mandatory program. Thus, while military retirement, unemployment compensation, and Medicare are intended to be exempt from “reconciliation” reductions according to the Budget Committee chairman, no rule would prevent the Government Reform Committee from meeting its $38.3 billion target in part by cutting those three programs, if it chose to do so. The Government Reform Committee likely would leave these three programs untouched. But it could seek savings in student loans, the school lunch program, or any mandatory program other than Social Security. Given a choice between cutting its own programs (and constituents) and cutting someone else’s, what would the Government Reform Committee be likely to do?

The “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” Canard

The House Budget Committee has asserted that the $265 billion in required cuts in mandatory programs it contains are designed to reduce “waste, fraud, and abuse.” For 20 years, this has been a standard line used to advance large cuts in mandatory programs without identifying the specific eligibility or benefit reductions that would be entailed — or the specific anti-fraud or abuse measures, for that matter, which usually fail to materialize or to generate more than a small amount of savings. The Budget Committee’s “waste, fraud, and abuse” rhetoric may be its justification for allowing the Government Reform Committee to cut programs outside its jurisdiction.

Such a justification, however, does not withstand scrutiny.

Two conclusions emerge from this discussion. First, it is eligibility and benefit levels for basic benefit programs that will primarily be affected — rather than “waste, fraud, and abuse” —if the House reconciliation directive survives conference. Second, under the House budget, the cuts that any House committee must make in its own programs could be enlarged by cuts in those same programs made by the Government Reform Committee.