Stay away from the gimmicks

STAY AWAY FROM THE GIMMICKS…. I can appreciate why politicians like budget gimmicks. Much of an unengaged, uninformed electorate probably finds them appealing, and for policymakers themselves, embracing gimmicks is easier than actual work.

For example, instead of lawmakers coming up with plans to balance the budget, we get lawmakers pushing plans for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The former requires a lot of touch choices and hard work; the latter sounds nice and pushes off the detailed solutions for later.

This week, a similar gimmick was proposed called the “Commitment to American Prosperity” Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Their plan doesn’t actually spell out cuts or present ideas for specific reductions, but instead comes up with arbitrary spending caps. Specifically, the CAP Act would dictate to Congress that it can spend no more than 20.6% of the size of the U.S. economy. (We’re currently around 24%.)

To get to this level, Congress would have to make deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare, or automatic, across-the-board reductions would kick in. Corker called his plan a “legislative straitjacket,” which he considers a good thing.

Ed Kilgore described this as one of those ideas that’s “crazy if serious, and deeply cynical if not.”

The craziness comes from the central idea that total federal spending needs to be immediately and inflexibly limited to a fixed percentage of GDP that’s lower than the levels of the Reagan administration. As a long analysis from Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, this sort of “cap” is not only arbitrary, but does not reflect the aging of the U.S. population (which inevitably increases retirement costs), the recent spike in health care costs, or the automatic increase in government spending that occurs during a recession, and, well, the basic need in a democracy for representative institutions to make decisions on taxes and spending.

Reaching the target proposed in this bill would involve reducing federal spending — all of it — by about 20% as compared to current levels. So much for Washington having any ability to deal with any challenges to the country, domestic or international. The negative impact on the economy would be vast and immediate.

But the cynicism comes from the mechanism by which the CAP Act would achieve its crazy goals: “sequestrations” of spending conducted by the Office of Management and Budget and enforced by an executive order of the president…. The “idea,” so to speak, is to respond to the inability or unwillingness of Congress to identify specific program cuts by administratively cutting every single program by the same percentage. The only difference is that the CAP Act, unlike Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, would include mandatory spending — basically Social Security and Medicare — in the sequestrations.

This is, in other words, a spectacularly bad idea. I realize McCaskill is up for re-election next year in a “red” state, and wants to bolster her reputation for fiscal responsibility, but the CAP Act isn’t responsible at all — it’s reckless and dangerous. There’s a reason no other Democrat in the Senate is taking this seriously.

Again, I can appreciate the temptation of ridiculous gimmicks. Republicans use them as a substitute for thought and policy work all the time, and they fit nicely in campaign ads.

But the risk is, the ubiquity of the gimmicks, coupled with the scarcity of sensible policymakers, might create conditions that allow one of these dumb ideas to actually pass. And at that point, the consequences for all of us would be severe.