Just when you think they finally get it … 

Examiner columnist and talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt ruffled feathers Tuesday when he said most of the 29 Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee are “content to labor away spending, spending, spending in national obscurity while being powerful within the Beltway.”

Understand that Hewitt is nobody’s fool when it comes to the ways of Washington, D.C., having served as general counsel at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. And he’s a constitutional law professor at Chapman University.

What sparked Hewitt, he wrote Monday, was the fact that the GOP majority on the panel “first tried to pass a mere $31 billion in ‘cuts’ for fiscal year 2011, then upped it to $60 billion and used magical thinking to brand that as compliant with the Pledge to America’s promise of at least $100 billion in cuts.”

The reality is that, even if the House had approved continuing resolutions that slashed $200 billion from 2011 federal spending, Washington would still have a deficit in excess of $1.1 trillion.

In other words, the House Appropriations Committee led by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has talked and promised a lot about cutting federal spending, but has hardly put a dent in the biggest annual deficit this nation has ever seen.

Jennifer Hing, the Rogers panel spokesman, wasn’t pleased by Hewitt’s column. She pointed out that “all of the Republican members of the Appropriations Committee have both publicly and privately committed to significantly reducing spending.”

Hing also claimed the lower spending-cut figure Hewitt pointed to was actually produced by the House Budget Committee, not the Rogers panel, and she added that “our members have voted in lockstep with Republican leadership on virtually all spending votes and have consistently voted to reduce, not increase, spending.”

When I asked Hewitt for a response, he reiterated his dismay with “the unwillingness of the Republican appropriators to cut fast and deep,” and added that “it is nothing short of astonishing that Ms. Hing is attempting to argue that the two extensions of the [continuing resolution] passed thus far have not been massive exercises in deficit spending. Of course they are.”

In one sense, Hing and Hewitt are both right. The House GOP did vote to cut federal spending by $61 billion this year, but that vote came on a continuing resolution that preserves overall outlays with a $1.1 trillion deficit. That means the House GOP voted to make only token spending cuts, even if they are, as Hing pointed out, the “largest discretionary spending cut in the history of Congress.”

Here’s the problem that Hing and too many House Republicans still don’t seem to understand: When the deficit is more than a $1 trillion a year, business-as-usual spending cuts are nothing to boast about — they might as well be shooting BBs at a charging elephant.

At least one GOP member of the Rogers panel understands this reality. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia told Hewitt on his radio show this week that “right now, frankly, in my opinion, we’re not cutting anything serious. It’s earmark money, it’s duplication money.”

I suspect that what really grinds Hewitt’s critics is his observation that “in this age of new media, instant messaging and Twitter, tea party activists across the country have already figured out their No. 1 opponents are not Democrats but GOP appropriators.”

Hewitt predicts tea party primary challengers for many incumbent GOP appropriators, and tea party support for Democrats who challenge those who survive such opposition. In other words, the appropriators have a choice: Lose the BBs and start cutting federal spending big time or face defeat next year.

Or to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the prospect of being hung in the morning ought wonderfully to focus the GOP appropriators’ minds.

Mark Tapscott is the editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner and proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog at www.washingtonexaminer.com.

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