Under the arbitrary ceiling

UNDER THE ARBITRARY CEILING…. Max Baucus has his eye on a specific spending target, and he seems to think he’ll hit it.

A senior lawmaker trying to break the logjam on health care overhaul says his committee has come up with elements of a plan that would allow them to produce a bill under $1 trillion that would be fully paid for.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., made the announcement Thursday. Of the five congressional committees working on President Barack Obama’s top legislative priority, Finance has the best chance of producing a bipartisan bill.

Baucus said the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office confirmed the $1 trillion cost over 10 years.

Now, I haven’t seen any of the details on this, so I can’t speak to the efforts that went into Baucus reaching the desired price tag.

But it occurs to me that it’s odd, just on a conceptual level, to pick an arbitrary number and build the policy around it. We’re apparently dealing with a legislative dynamic in which Senate leaders want a reform bill that costs no more than $1 trillion over the course of 10 years (or, an average, $100 billion a year). What if a good bill cost $1.1 trillion or $1.2 trillion? That’s too much. Why? Because the Senate likes round numbers.

Did any of this happen during the Bush years? Did Republican senators ever say, “We’d like to fund the war in Iraq on an indefinite basis, but only if it costs less than $100 billion a year for the next decade”? Or, “We’d like to slash taxes on wealthy people who don’t need a tax cut, but we’re picking an arbitrary round number that the cost of the tax cut can’t exceed”?