Budget Gimmicks

by Jonathan Bernstein

The important thing to remember about all budget gimmicks is that they there are really only two ways to change the federal deficit: raise more revenues, or cut spending.  The presidents and Congresses that have really wanted to cut deficits (most notably George H.W. Bush in 1990 and Bill Clinton in 1993, along with Democratic Congresses in both cases) have done so by actually supporting proposals that would change government revenues and/or outlays.

Any time you hear someone propose a budget gimmick instead of proposing to raise revenues or cut spending, you can be fairly certain that it's just hot air.  The only exception I'd make would be for a pol who does both.  Barack Obama, for example, is putting together a commission which is purely a public relations gimmick, but he's also supporting a health care plan that will, if implemented, probably cut the long-term deficit quite a bit.

(Commissions can work if everyone involved wants to do something but doesn't want to leave fingerprints; that's not the case with Obama's commission).

In general, I'd probably be willing to speculate that the more distant the gimmick, the less serious the authors are about it.  So the one gimmick that actually might matter is the Democrats' PAYGO rules...although even there, the only real way it's going to matter is if Congress and the president abide by those rules, which means that the rules themselves are close to, although not quite completely, irrelevant.

Long wind-up to: the very least serious thing you can possibly do about the federal budget deficit would be to sponsor a Constitutional amendment on the subject.  Bruce Bartlett takes part two recent examples, the Blue Dog balanced budget amendment and the Pence-Hensarling spending amendment.  Bartlett nails it:

I’m starting to think that Samuel Johnson was wrong; patriotism isn’t the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s a constitutional amendment. The only purpose of such amendments is to allow members of Congress to shirk their responsibility to propose and support meaningful deficit reduction measures now. Unless they are cosponsors of Paul Ryan’s detailed deficit reduction proposal, or have put forward one equally as stringent and detailed, they can’t be considered serious about the budget and should simply be ignored when saying anything about the need for constitutional changes to make them do what they should already be doing.

I'm not a deficit hawk...on deficits, I belong to the Brad DeLong school.  But for those of you who actually care about deficits -- if you see a pol coming brandishing a Constitutional amendment, I strongly urge you to either run away quickly or laugh in his or her face.  At any rate, there are no procedural impediments that would make lowering deficits hard, so there's no reason to look for a procedural solution.