One of the chief claims Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., makes in his plan to hike the debt limit is that winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would save $1 trillion. Of course, in reality the wars are ending anyway, so the money would be saved with or without the Reid plan. The Democratic response has been to point fingers at Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose Republican budget, they claim, counts the same savings. But the reality is more complicated.
Because Washington rarely actually reduces spending from one year to the next, when lawmakers speak of “cuts,” they're actually comparing it to some baseline of what spending would be without enacting a given proposal. So there can be quite a lot of argument over which baseline is the most accurate. Should a proposal be compared with President Obama's budget? The Congressional Budget Office's estimate of how high spending would be if all the laws on the books were enacted as written? Or the CBO projections based on assumptions about what kind of policies would actually be implemented? When Ryan released his budget in April, he included charts that compared his proposed spending levels to many different baselines so that people could make apples to apples comparisons based on what they think is the fairest baseline. On one of those charts, he noted the war savings, because those were included in the CBO's own baseline.
With that as background, I'll let Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney take it away:
None of the $6.2 trillion in spending cuts in the House-passed budget can be attributed to this gimmick. 0%. By contrast, 37% of Senator Reid’s claimed savings come from this gimmick.
The CBO current law baseline assumes surge-level spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is scheduled to continue over the next decade. We – most Americans and the credit markets – would think that is a flawed assumption. In the interest of transparency, the House-passed budget does include comparisons to the current law baseline — but we also note repeatedly and consistently the flaws in using this benchmark to exaggerate savings. Senator Reid, by contrast, trumpets this gimmick because Senate Democrats are unable to get serious about cutting spending. While disappointing, it is not surprising given the fact that it has been 817 days since Senate Democrats last thought the federal government needed a budget.
Ryan himself explains the issue in more detail here.
I'd just add that this whole line of attack by Democrats is silly, because Ryan's budget actually included reforms that dealt with the long-term drivers of our debt problem — entitlements. That's true no matter how you account for war spending. Yet the war savings are a central component of Reid's proposal, and there is no attempt to address the long-term issue. And when I asked Reid about this at a press conference earlier today, he cited his support for a bipartisan Congressional committee.