In some conservative quarters there is grumbling over the federal deficit. For example, pundit Andrew Sullivan notes:
Where I differ from others is in their belief that deficits don’t matter; that government debt is no problem; and that drastically increasing that debt just before the entitlement crunch hits is good politics or economics. I think we need to decrease spending while we decrease taxes. At the very least, I think we should hold a line on spending while we decrease taxes. What I cannot support is vastly increasing spending while you cut taxes. Call me crazy, but I regard this as a question of responsibility. We have a responsibility not to leave the next generation in a huge hole of our making. At this point, it’s clear that the Republican Party, at all levels, is simply fiscally irresponsible.
It’s a fair criticism. The Bush Administration has been woefully inept at holding the line on spending; and during the last years of the Clinton Administration when the budget was in surplus, Congressional Republicans were, in general, all too willing to partake of a spending orgy. With a few notable exceptions, conservative commentators have not been as hard on Bush and the GOP about spending as they should have. The reason, however, is that while we dislike deficits, we loathe deficit politics.
Indeed, the deficit game is rigged so that conservatives always lose. Let’s look at the ways the playing field is tilted:
1. Deficits Invoked Against Tax Cuts, Not Spending. A headline on last Thursday’s Washington Post editorial page read “Debt and Taxes.” Do you suppose we’ll ever see a liberal-newspaper editorial titled “Debt and Prescription Drug Coverage”? While tax cuts always raise the specter of deficits in the mainstream media, the same cannot be said of new spending programs. Where was all the concern about deficits regarding Tom Harkin’s farm bill or Ted Kennedy’s education bill? In fact, many of the same Democrats that are carping most about deficits now –Kennedy, Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Dick Gephardt — are the same ones who voted against the Balanced Budget Amendment in the mid-1990s. Liberals are concerned about deficits only insofar as they are useful in defeating tax cuts.
2. Spending Cuts Are Evil. Remember the last time the Republicans in Congress made a serious attempt at controlling spending, like reforming entitlements such as Medicaid? To listen to certain liberal politicians and pundits, the Fourth Reich had arrived. Democrats accused the GOP of wanting to hurt the elderly, the children, and the poor. It helped get Bill Clinton re-elected and the Democrats take back nine seats in the House in 1996. Perhaps it is a bit unreasonable to ask the GOP to go through that again.
3. The Deficit Game Results in Tax Increases. Two of the last three major deficit-reduction packages (1990 and 1993) enacted by the federal government included historic tax increases. The justifications for these tax hikes included the need to sacrifice and the responsibility of some to pay their “fair share.” And what do conservatives get in return? Well, once the budget begins running a surplus, politicians on both sides resume their profligate ways, while tax-cut advocates have to pull teeth to achieve any policy victories. As Ramesh Ponnuru puts it, “The rules of the game in Washington ensure that tax cuts are a matter of intense deliberation, while spending goes up on autopilot.”
Clearly, conservatives are not eager to play the deficit game again, at least until the rules are seriously altered. The $6.4 trillion question is how do we change the rules? First, Congress should consider limiting non-entitlement, non-defense spending to increases in population growth and inflation. The state of Colorado has a similar limit on its budget, and is currently one of the few states not facing a major budget crunch. Such a rule applied to the federal government could do a good deal to hold down spending.
Next, Congress should reform the budget process. Under the current rules, each year’s budget is supposed to be finished by September 30. This means that during an election year, the budget must be finished about six weeks before the election. This undoubtedly creates pressure to boost spending as members of Congress want to maximize their re-election chances by sending all sorts of goodies back home to the voters. Instead, Congress should adopt a two-year budget that must be completed in a non-election year. This won’t alleviate all of the pressure to spend, but it will mitigate it.
Finally, President Bush should consider another commission along the lines of the Grace Commission. Call it the “Government Efficiency Commission,” it would be charged with studying the federal government for a year and making recommendations on which government programs should be cut or eliminated. The GEC’s proposal would be introduced as legislation and Congress would have to take an up-or-down vote — i.e., no amendments — on it. Such a reform would be even more potent if it required that the GEC be reconstituted every five years.
Surely there are many other good ideas which could bring deficits to heel as well. Nevertheless, conservatives are wary of playing the deficit game again. Given recent history, who can blame them?