By John Tierney
Let's get down and dirty. What would you cut? Whose fat would you carve out? Tonight's speechifying is all about positioning: which party is the stronger agent of budgetary famine? President Obama says he'd like to freeze federal discretionary spending over the next five years. But of course that's just a way of trying to take the steam out of Republican desires actually to cut spending.
The Republicans are eager to portray themselves as willing to starve the recipients of federal largesse: If they were any damn good, they wouldn't need government money! Of course, Republicans talk a good game, but they don't like to come up with specifics about whose ox should be gored. Democrats don't like to discuss particulars either. That's because one person's budgetary fat is another person's favorite pâté: rural Americans see no reason why the federal government should be supporting urban mass-transit systems; urban Americans blanch at the thought of continued farm subsidies; and so on....
And let's face it: our governmental system is pathologically incapable of dealing with problems of this sort. Members of Congress are wonderful at passing out the goodies, but horrible at allocating costs or imposing sacrifices. They're political cowards. (I know: for this kind of insight, you come only to The Atlantic!) We have a Congress that the Founders never anticipated: it's full of careerists -- people intent on having a career as a member of Congress. To accomplish that, they have to get reelected time after time. They have to avoid making decisions that disappoint and anger people, decisions that allocate costs or sacrifice. But that's a horrible structure of systemic incentives for making policy decisions. It leads to really lousy policy -- and huge budget deficits.