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John Boehner’s legacy: gigantic cuts to federal spending

Boehner got more concessions from Obama than he often gets credit for.
Boehner got more concessions from Obama than he often gets credit for.
Pete Souza/White House
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

House Speaker John Boehner's resignation comes after years of attempts by more conservative Republicans to topple him. Boehner, they argued, was a sellout, a weakling, unwilling to stand up to the Obama administration and force real spending cuts.

But Boehner actually did more to reduce the size of the federal government than any other politician in recent memory.

Last year, analysts Richard Kogan and William Chen at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that deficits over 2015-24 would be $5 trillion lower than had been projected before Boehner became speaker. Most of the savings — $3.2 trillion — came in the form of spending cuts enacted through the post-debt ceiling crisis Budget Control Act, spending cuts negotiated in early 2011, the Bush tax cuts deal of late 2012, the Murray-Ryan spending deal of 2013, and last year's farm bill.

Boehner had help enacting that $3.2 trillion spending reduction. But without him using the House to force President Obama and Senate Democrats to accept cutbacks, it's doubtful it would have happened.

On election night, November 2, 2010, after it became clear he would become speaker, Boehner promised a "new approach" that "starts with cutting spending instead of increasing it"; he pledged to leave a "smaller, less costly" government in his wake. Whatever else you can say about the man, he absolutely accomplished that goal.

Boehner's cuts swamp those of Newt Gingrich

"Let's just agree to repeal the Medicare part every year, deal?"

Gingrich and Clinton at the signing of the Balance Budget Act of 1997.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

One way to see the impact of Boehner's speakership is to compare him with the last Republican speaker to win a majority during a Democratic presidency: Newt Gingrich. Dennis Hastert served as speaker between the two of them, but with a Republican administration happily increasing spending, and Hastert's tenure under Bill Clinton seeing historic surpluses, budget slashing wasn't a real priority for him. Gingrich was the last Republican politician to face a roughly similar task as Boehner.

So how did he do? Well, Gingrich's crowning achievement was the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which enacted spending cuts that, along with a fast-growing economy, led to the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. Keith Hennessey, who served as George W. Bush's top economic adviser, estimates that the 1997 budget deal — along with contemporaneous tax cuts — reduced spending, on net, by $289 billion over five years. That averages $57.8 billion per year of the budget window; converting from 1998 to 2015 dollars (which makes Gingrich's achievement look bigger than it was, since most of those dollars were saved between 1999 and 2002), that's about $80 billion.

By contrast, the Budget Control Act and earlier 2011 spending cuts backed by Boehner reduced spending by $3.112 trillion over 10 years, for an average of $311.2 billion per year of the budget window. So even if you're being generous to Gingrich, Boehner still cut almost four times as much as Gingrich did.

It gets worse for Gingrich, though. A lot of the savings — $100 billion, according to this contemporaneous report — in the Balanced Budget Act came in the form of reduced payments to Medicare providers: doctors, hospitals, etc. But it turns out that doctors and hospitals are extremely politically powerful, and so Congress made it a tradition to regularly delay the cuts. It paid for these in other ways, typically, so the cuts did wind up saving money. But these "doc fixes" eventually became too much for Congress, and this year it opted to just add $141 billion to the deficit over 10 years to get rid of the cuts for good. The cuts did last over the initial five-year window, but they weren't as durable as Gingrich would've liked.

It's unclear whether Boehner's cuts will stick, but four years out from the Budget Control Act, there's no end in sight for the law's spending caps. The only part of the act that looks significantly threatened are its spending cuts, with even a number of Democrats arguing for higher caps. But the cuts to domestic spending have dug a major hole that will take years, if not decades, for Democrats to fill. If a Republican takes the White House, it's easy to imagine defense spending spiking again. It's harder to imagine the politics that make a restoration of 2010-level domestic spending possible.

Boehner didn't get the cuts of his dreams, but cuts are cuts

Paul Ryan, looking across America, in all its glory

The big entitlement cuts of Paul Ryan's budget never came to pass.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The one major caveat here is that these weren't the spending cuts Republicans were looking for.

Republicans really want to cut entitlement spending — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, in particular. But the cuts Congress actually passed overwhelmingly went to discretionary programs — and within that, about half went to defense spending, which many Republicans want to increase.

However, realistically no House speaker was going to make much of a dent in entitlement spending. President Obama just was not going to sign huge cutbacks to Social Security; he might sign something relatively minor like chained CPI, but only if a tax increase came with it. And while he's been aggressive about trying to reduce the growth rate of health-care spending, his preferred methods — dramatic payment reforms, paying for performance, etc. — contrast sharply with the preferred Republican method of slashing Medicaid into oblivion.

Assessed against a realistic baseline, $3.2 trillion in spending cuts, including billions in cuts to institutions Republicans loathe like the Department of Education and the IRS, are a major accomplishment for the Republican House. Whether you think that's a good thing or not is another question entirely. But it's hard to deny that John Boehner accomplished his goal of making big cuts to federal spending.