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A closer look at what's included in the spending that Republicans want to eliminate

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're three days away from a possible government shutdown. As of now, we're not seeing any signs of progress. So let's dig a little deeper into the claim of a small group of lawmakers who are behind the stalemate - they're usually described as conservatives - that they are holding out for deeper cuts to government spending.

But here's the thing. What they can actually negotiate over is discretionary spending, specifically nondefense discretionary spending. And that is a small portion - less than a sixth - of the government's $6 trillion budget. So is that really going to bring down government spending in any meaningful way? And if not, what are they really fighting about?

We called Marc Goldwein for more on that. He's a top policy official at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That's a nonprofit that pushes for what it considers more responsible economic policies, like reducing the national debt. Good morning.

MARC GOLDWEIN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So could you give us a sense of exactly what's included in the spending that Republicans want to eliminate?

GOLDWEIN: Sure. So we have a $6.5 trillion budget. Of that, about a quarter, 1.6 trillion, is appropriated each year. That's what we're debating. And of that, less than half is on nondefense discretionary. That's the part that House Republicans are talking about right now. So it's about 11% of the total budget.

MARTIN: So if this - these discretionary spending cuts go forward, this is - that's what the Republicans say - or at least this particular group says that they want. What exactly would that look like?

GOLDWEIN: Well, it depends how deep the final cuts are. But from a budgetary perspective, it would save meaningful money over time, maybe $1 trillion-plus over 10 years. But we need $8 trillion over 10 years just to stop the debt from rising faster than the economy.

MARTIN: So, you know, we often focus on the tangible things that the shutdown affects. And - you know, and appropriately so - I mean, people who have to show up to work and don't get paid, people who can't pay their child care bills, the parks being closed, monuments not open, burials delayed. But is part of the reason that these shutdowns - and there have been - what is this? Is this the fifth or sixth since - over a span of time? - is that most people don't really feel it?

GOLDWEIN: At any given time, most people won't feel a shutdown unless you're living here in Washington, D.C., because most of government keeps running. Most of government is Social Security. It's Medicare. It's food stamps. And as long as you're already on those programs, you're going to keep getting those benefits.

MARTIN: So the problem then becomes for people who are not yet on those programs or for people have - need some change in their life. I mean, so it's painful for the people who live it. But if you're not actually affected in this group, life goes on. Is that really it?

GOLDWEIN: That's right. And this is why the longer shutdowns go, the more disruptive they are, because everybody eventually is going to need to apply for something, whether it's a passport or whether it's a benefit program - just maybe not in the next two weeks.

MARTIN: But what I'm hearing you saying is that this really - it affects this in the long term, but it doesn't really have a long-term effect on a growing budget, and it doesn't have a long-term effect on the growing debt. So is this really about government spending, or is this something else? Is this really more theater, to be blunt?

GOLDWEIN: Yeah. Well, look. Shutdowns don't save money. They waste money because we still spend it all later. Actual cuts to nondefense discretionary - they can help with the budget. But at the end of the day, we need to do something about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, from your perspective, are there any remaining options to avoid a shutdown?

GOLDWEIN: So we surveyed a hundred top budget experts, and they think there's an 87% chance of a shutdown. So the good news is that means there's a 13% chance we're going to make it through it. The parties just have to get together quick on some type of temporary kick-the-can continuing resolution.

MARTIN: But this still isn't a long-term fix to the things that people say they're really fighting about.

GOLDWEIN: That's right. The debate is going to be ongoing about how we're going to spend and what we're going to spend on in the appropriations process.

MARTIN: That is Marc Goldwein. He's a top policy official. He's a senior vice president and a policymaker at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That's a nonprofit in Washington that pushes for what it calls more responsible economic policies. Marc Goldwein, thanks so much for talking to us.

GOLDWEIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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