Rogers, Paul challenged by reality of GOP cuts

Kentucky's U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Sen. Rand Paul were on the receiving end of boos from their fellow conservatives last week, but for different reasons.

Scoffing at Rogers' proposed $35 billion in spending cuts, newly elected House Republicans demanded more.

That sent the appropriations chairman and dean of Kentucky's congressional delegation scampering back to the chopping block.

Rogers promised to assemble cuts that he had earlier warned would be too extreme and that would furlough air traffic controllers, lay off law enforcement officers and return the Food and Drug Administration to funding levels of 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, Kentucky's freshman senator and Tea Party hero was the target of some boos when he called for cuts in defense spending while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, a high-profile confab of the political right.

Paul, who criticized Rogers' cuts as too timid, said, "We will have to look long and hard at the military budget."

Paul is right, if the goal is to balance the federal budget without any tax increases.

Defense and security account for 20 percent of federal spending. It's unrealistic to think the $1.5 trillion deficit can be erased through spending cuts alone without touching $715 billion in the defense budget. It's equally unrealistic to think military spending is free of waste, fraud and abuse.

Paul also talked about "reforming entitlements" (translation: cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits).

Meanwhile, Rogers, who has proposed increasing defense spending by $7.6 billion, is aiming his ax at the roughly 40 percent of the budget that isn't defense, Social Security or health care entitlements.

Democrats, who control the Senate and White House, won't take kindly to Republican plans to eliminate family planning, eviscerate disease control and environmental protection or cut $2 billion from job training when so many Americans are looking for jobs.

Democrats can also make an economic case that this is the wrong time for draconian cuts that could snuff out the fragile recovery.

The disagreements between and within parties could lead to an impasse that shuts down the federal government when the current spending plan expires on March 4.

Longer term, though, those who are sincerely interested in restoring the nation to sound fiscal footing will have to look not just at spending but also at increasing the money that's coming into government.

Taxes as a share of the U.S. economy are at their lowest point in 60 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The weak economy is largely to blame but so are the $1 trillion in tax breaks that Congress has enacted since Reagan-era tax reforms.

To tame the national debt, deficit warriors will have to attack tax giveaways as ruthlessly as they go after government fat.

Paul warned that the national debt has put us almost at the "point of no return." But take heart: With a healthy economy, some creative thinking and bipartisan resolve, we can dig ourselves out.

After all, it was just 10 years ago that the federal government was running a $128 billion surplus.