President Obama is finally - sort of - pointing in the right direction. His call for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary federal spending represents a minor triumph for fiscal conservatives. Even if the president doesn't mean it, public opposition to his expansion of government is so strong that he at least has to pretend to want to slow down bureaucratic growth. Conservatives now have an opportunity to challenge Mr. Obama not only to make good on the freeze, but also to limit the size and scope of government more broadly.
Before anyone gets too excited, Mr. Obama still is protecting far too much federal spending. Reports say no cuts will come from the $787 billion stimulus package passed last year. The freeze will not apply to a new jobs bill the president is proposing under the illusion that government can actually create jobs. It won't apply to any health bill Democrats try to save from the wreckage of Obamacare. It won't apply to purely local projects, such as museums, annually snuck into defense appropriations bills that have nothing to do with defense. And, of course, it won't apply to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
That said, Mr. Obama explicitly campaigned against a spending freeze, and he has presided over the largest one-year expansion of government in U.S. history outside of World War II. For Mr. Obama to call for a freeze of any sort is an important pivot that reminds of former President Bill Clinton's political concession to conservatives that "the era of big government is over." The $15 billion in purported savings from a freeze is a mere four-hundredths of one percentage point of estimated federal outlays. With a one-year deficit projected to exceed $1 trillion, $15 billion is small change, but it's better than no change at all.
Congress should see the president's "savings" and raise them. Any stimulus funds still unspent should be rescinded or reduced. An absolute ban should be enforced on all new local earmarks, in law and in bill report language, for the same three-year period, and those savings applied (above the savings from the "freeze") to debt reduction. Any talk of new spending for so-called jobs programs should be nixed. And all that's just a start.