The Cost of Spending: Can deficit-reduction plans make a dent?

The report from President Obama's highly touted deficit-reduction commission came out two years and 18 days ago.

On that brisk December morning, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad painted a dire picture if lawmakers didn't move quickly.

"If we fail to act now, our country could find itself in a circumstance in which we have to take draconian action, at the worst possible time in the middle of a crisis. I pray to God that we have the wisdom to act before that point," he said.

The two commission co-chairmen couldn't agree more. "This baby ain't going away," co-chairman Alan Simpson said.

But so far, Congress has not been able to pass a plan that achieves what their proposal would -- a $4 trillion deficit reduction within 10 years. And it's unclear if they ever will.

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In the current talks over the looming fiscal crisis, the deal on the table is considerably smaller -- and yet President Obama said Wednesday that Republicans should be pleased with the spending cuts they'd be getting him to sign onto.

"Take the deal," he said. "You know, they will be able to claim that they have worked with me over the last two years to reduce the deficit more than any other deficit reduction package; that we will have stabilized it for 10 years. That is a significant achievement for them. They should be proud of it."

But clearly, they're not.

Last week, Republicans warned about "kicking the can down the road" and "doing all the gimmicks that have been done in the past."

Whether either party will kick that habit, though, remains to be seen. With the government spending roughly $10 billion a day, the cuts that are being proposed wouldn't even cover the interest on the debt.

Spending is not projected to go down. At best, the rate of growth in spending would slow.

"The word 'cut' is what government statisticians and budget officials call it -- but in fact it's just really a slowing of growth, and sometimes the growth is still quite high even after it's slowed down," said John Taylor, a Stanford University economist.

Arthur Brooks, with the American Enterprise Institute, explained: "They assume that if this year we spend 5 percent, next year we're gonna spend 8 percent, and the year after that we're gonna spend 10 percent. And they say 'well I'll tell you what, why don't we cut a percentage point off each one of those rates of growth?' ... Well, that's not a cut."

Former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh noted that "no family, no business, no philanthropy" would operate that way.

"I think there are some passages in Alice in Wonderland that must have dealt with this, because in Washington less of an increase is considered a cut, even though it's more money," he said.

So why not scrap that system altogether?  Bayh said some have suggested doing that, and budgeting every year by starting from zero and saying "how much money do we have?"

"That's the way every business, every family, ever charitable foundation has to operate -- would be good if the federal government did that too," he said.