The New York Times and Politico tonight are reporting that President Obama is planning to announce a three-year spending freeze on domestic discretionary programs during Wednesday’s State of the Union address and in his budget, which is expected to be released February 1. If implemented, the freeze would cut spending in real, inflation-adjusted terms for most domestic programs, possibly including the Promise and Choice Neighborhoods programs.
In reality, however, this proposal probably won’t mean much for Promise and Choice Neighborhoods, and here’s why.
First, it is important to note that the freeze will only apply to ‘discretionary’ domestic spending, meaning entitlements and defense spending will not be affected (nor will a few protected programs such as those for veterans). Still, the proposal will cover about $447 billion in spending, probably including all of the spending that would fund Promise Neighborhoods in the long run.
But the freeze will not apply to every domestic program in this category, just the overall level of spending. That means the president will still be able to propose new spending for some programs as long as offsetting cuts are found elsewhere. In other words, favored administration programs like Promise and Choice Neighborhoods probably won’t be greatly affected. Of course, we won’t know for sure until Monday, but it seems extremely unlikely (i.e., impossible) that President Obama would have touted these two programs as recently as last Thursday if he wasn’t going to fund them.
But there are also other important factors at work. The president’s budget submission is merely a proposal. It is up to Congress to decide how much actually gets spent and this Congress is unlikely to enact substantial cuts. Even Republican Congresses under a Republican president (President George W. Bush) couldn’t do that, and they were more inclined to do so. The political backlash for proposing cuts in education and similar programs is simply too high.
At first glance, this might seem to be a good thing for Promise and Choice Neighborhoods. But if Congress fails to implement administration cuts, it will probably also be less able to fund new administration priorities and still appear to be holding the line on spending overall.
That’s where a final piece of the puzzle falls into place. In most years, almost certainly including this one, Congress does not pass spending bills until well after the October 1 start of the fiscal year. Recall that the bill that funded the Promise Neighborhoods planning grants was not passed and signed into law until December. That means the spending bills won’t get passed until after the mid-term elections are over, by which time the pressure to hold the line against a few outstanding administration priorities will be over.
In short, the most likely outcome is that most administration-favored programs will still experience a spending increase, including Promise and Choice Neighborhoods, but this may not be apparent until after the elections are over. And in many cases, it is likely that increased funding will be carved out of existing programs.
The more alarming long-term threat to Promise Neighborhoods is the possibility that Republicans will take control of the House or Senate in the fall. Although Republicans are not much better than Democrats when it comes to controlling spending overall, history suggests that they will still hold the line against presidential initiatives where they can, particularly in the run up to President Obama’s campaign for reelection. That’s not a partisan statement. Democrats would do the same to a Republican president if the situation were reversed. Sadly, it is more a reflection of the overly partisan nature of our national political system.