If Republicans aren't going to be serious about controlling federal spending, perhaps they should quit pretending to be so.
With much political gnashing of teeth, and nary a Democratic vote, Republicans just cut federal spending by less than $8 billion a year.
For their trouble, Republicans have been denounced by Democrats and various spending lobbies as meanies to seniors, students and the poor.
And for what? In reality, the national trajectory will not be meaningfully altered if the federal government spends $2.701 trillion this year rather than $2.709 trillion or if the federal deficit is $415 billion rather than $423 billion.
President Bush's proposed 2007 budget continues the pretense of being serious about controlling federal spending. According to the numbers released, Bush is proposing to increase overall federal spending by just 2 percent.
But that excludes the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the country spends next year what it will spend this year on those engagements, an estimated $120 billion, then federal spending will increase by nearly 7 percent.
And that's before the Republicans in Congress weigh in. On average, Congress has added about $75 billion a year to Bush's spending requests.
Under Bush and Republican control of Congress, federal spending has increased much more rapidly than the national economy. When Bush took over, federal spending was 18.5 percent of the gross domestic product and had been declining. In 2006, it is expected to be nearly 21 percent.
Federal spending under Bush has been increasing twice as fast as it did during the divided government days under President Clinton.
In his budget, Bush proposes some more minor economies whose political cost probably isn't worth the savings. In the short run, these economies don't matter much. In the long run, the spending challenges require fundamental reforms, not pocketing nickels and dimes.
So, what would a really serious effort to control federal spending look like?
It would begin by attacking corporate welfare, for both substantive and political reasons.
Substantively, it's a lot of money. Federal corporate subsidies are estimated to be around $90 billion a year. These subsidies create economic inefficiencies by distorting consumer and investor decisions.
Politically, starting with corporate welfare provides the bona fides to effect economies in other programs with more politically sympathetic constituencies.
The next easiest place to save serious money is federal grants to state and local governments. Since 1990, the cost of such subventions has more than tripled. They now constitute nearly 17 percent of the federal budget, compared with 11 percent in 1990.
These subventions undermine representative government by clouding responsibility and accountability. Federal elected officials appear to be bestowing free money on local communities. Local elected officials get to take credit for new projects without the political pain of raising the money for them.
The real economies, however, need to be made in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Over this half-century, the federal cost of these programs is expected to rise from about 8.5 percent of GDP to nearly 19 percent, or almost what the entire federal government consumes in national output today.
Simply put, there's no level or distribution of taxation possible to pay this bill that will not severely damage the economy. The programs have to be reformed so they cost less.
What needs to be done is well-known. Federal assistance for retirement income and health care has to be made more a function of income. Middle-class and upper-income workers are going to have to save more while they work to provide more for themselves in retirement. Federal costs for Medicaid need to be capped in exchange for greater state control of the program.
Such recommendations aren't going to come out of a bipartisan commission, as Bush has proposed. If they are going to happen, they will happen because Republicans proposed them and persuaded the American people they were necessary.
Some congressional Republicans oppose real control of federal spending. Some believe that proposing it will cost Republicans control of the federal government.
Perhaps advocating real spending restraint would cost Republicans control of Congress and the presidency. Perhaps the American people aren't ready to make grown-up decisions about what's reasonable to expect from their federal government.
But it's hard to see the political advantage to the pretend game Republicans are currently playing, in which they attempt insignificant economies at great political cost while running up overall spending faster than even a fairly robust economy is expanding.