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There are few things more frustrating in life than being a budget hawk. You spend your days predicting dire consequences that never quite come to pass, trying to convince voters that their government can’t keep expanding popular programs without paying for them, and hectoring politicians into making votes that would be political suicide. Like Cassandra of Greek myth, you have the ability to foretell the future, but suffer the curse of being unable to change it.
Earlier this month, a group of middle-of-the-road think tankers agreed on a new way to address the unnerving prospect of rising deficits. This gang of 16 included former CBO directors Bob Reischauer, Rudy Penner, and Alice Rivlin, and former top White House aides Bill Galston and Belle Sawhill. It included Republicans such as Ron Haskins and Democrats such as Will Marshall—all members in good standing of the Washington policy establishment.
What they came up with is at least intriguing. Unable to agree on a specific plan for deficit reduction, they instead went the tactical route, proposing a process aimed at slowing the growth in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Their idea is for Congress to set sustainable long-term budgets for the Big Three entitlements and review their costs every five years or so. If the programs grow faster than the pace Congress agreed upon, automatic spending reductions or revenue increases would kick in.
Now, these battle-scarred budgeteers are hardly naïve. They fully expect Congress would never enact the automatic budget cuts. Instead, the triggers would be both a stick to prod action and a bit of political cover for politicians reluctant to act. “We have no illusions,” says former CBO director Rudy Penner, “Congress might waive the trigger.” But, he adds, “Congress would have to make its decisions explicit.”
The prospect of draconian triggers might allow Congress to approve some valuable half-measures and take credit for preventing the more serious automatic cuts. Delaying the first review until five years after the trigger law passed would also give politicians some breathing room before they had to make hard choices. This plan might not solve future budget problems, but it might at least downshift them from catastrophic to merely bad.
Congress, of course, has a long history of happily ignoring triggers and other budget rules. Remember Paygo, anyone? And after years as a budget reporter, I confess to being more than a little skeptical about process reform. But after listening to the three remaining Presidential candidates outdoing one another in the race towards fiscal irresponsibility, we desperately need a new idea or two. This is at least something to talk about while McCain, Obama, and Clinton do their best to blow the lid off the deficit.
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