Tag: balanced budget amendment

Arizona Moves to Limit Federal Spending

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Compact for America, an elegant mechanism for limiting out-of-control federal spending through a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution that would be advanced via an interstate compact.

Well, already there’s progress on that front.  This past Monday, the CFA passed the Arizona House Committee on Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility.  The full state house will now be taking up this important legislation.

I should note that the prime sponsor of the bill is former Cato intern who’s now a state representative (and my friend), Adam Kwasman.  Glad to see that our internship program is paying dividends with the future leaders of constitutional liberty.

Let’s hope the momentum continues and that the CFA gains traction in other states, putting on Congress to call a constitutional convention or pass its own Balanced Budget Amendment.

House Appropriations Chairman Behind Military Pork

After the Republicans took back control of the House following the November 2010 elections, the GOP leadership went with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers—a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork”—to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. I wrote at the time that “The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington.”

I haven’t changed my mind.

A recent article in the New York Times offers up another reminder that the 30-year House veteran’s priority is to funnel taxpayer money back to his district—not downsize the federal government:

In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan. Thanks to a powerful Kentucky congressman who has steered tens of millions of federal dollars to his district, the Army has bought about $6.5 million worth of the “leakproof” drip pans in the last three years to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters. And it might want more from the Kentucky company that makes the pans, even though a similar pan from another company costs a small fraction of the price: about $2,500…The Kentucky company, Phoenix Products, got the job to produce the pans after Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added an earmark to a 2009 spending bill. While the earmark came before restrictions were placed on such provisions for for-profit companies, its outlays have continued for the last three years.

According to the Times, Phoenix Products’ president and his wife have been “frequent contributors” to Rogers’s political committee and the company has spent at least $600k on a DC lobbying firm since 2005. Those efforts apparently haven’t gone unrewarded as Rogers “has directed more than $17 million in work orders for Phoenix Products since 2000.”

Readers should keep this story in mind the next time a Republican member of Congress calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, complains about the growth in government under Obama, and then argues against “dangerous defense cuts.” The bedtime story that Americans often hear is that the federal government must spend gobs of money on defense in order to “keep us safe from our enemies.” I once believed that story—and then I spent some time in the U.S. Senate watching policymakers treat military spending like any other pot of taxpayer money.

[See here for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.]

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

Spending Reform in Rick Perry’s Plan

Texas governor Rick Perry’s “Cut, Balance, and Grow” plan is out. Dan Mitchell discussed Perry’s proposed tax reforms so I’ll offer my take on the proposed spending reforms:

  • Perry says he wants to “preserve Social Security for all generations of Americans” but state and local government employees would be allowed to opt-out of the program. Perry says that younger Americans would be able to “contribute a portion of their earnings” to a personal retirement account. I’d like to be able to completely opt-op without having to work in government. I suspect that other younger Americans who recognize that Social Security is a lousy deal will feel the same.
  • Other proposed reforms to Social Security include raising the retirement age, changing the indexing formula, and ending the practice of using excess Social Security revenues to fund general government activities. Proposing to put an end to “raiding” the Social Security trust fund might be a good sound bite for the campaign trail, but excess Social Security revenues will soon be a thing of the past anyhow. Bizarrely, Perry cites the Highway Trust Fund as “the model for how to protect funds in a pay-as-you-go system from being used for unrelated purposes.” As a Cato essay on federal highway financing explains, only about 60 percent of highway trust fund money is actually spent on highways. The rest is spent on non-highway uses like transit and bicycle paths. The bottom line is that the federal budget’s so-called “trust funds” generally belong in the same category as Santa Claus and the Toothy Fairy. Perry should just stick with calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
  • As for Medicare, Perry says reform options would include raising the retirement age, adjusting benefits, and giving Medicare recipients more control over how they spend the money they receive from current taxpayers. No surprises there.
  • I’m a little confused by Perry’s language on Medicaid reform. On one hand, he says that the 1996 welfare reform law should be used as the model. The 1996 welfare reform law block granted a fixed amount of federal funds for each state. On the other hand, Perry says “Instead of the federal government confiscating money from states, taking a cut off the top, and then sending the money back out with limited flexibility for how states can actually use it, individual states should control the program’s funding and requirements from the very beginning.” I believe that the states, and not the federal government, should be responsible for funding low-income health care programs (if they choose to offer such programs). However, I don’t think that’s what Perry is actually proposing.
  • Perry calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution and a cap on total federal spending equal to 18 percent of GDP. Federal spending will be about 24 percent of GDP this year. What agencies and programs would Perry cut or eliminate to reduce federal spending by 6 percent of GDP? He doesn’t really say. That leaves me to conclude that he embraces a BBA for the same reason that most Republicans embrace it: he wants to avoid getting specific about what programs he’d cut. One could argue that his entitlement reforms are sufficiently specific, but compared to Ron Paul’s plan, which calls for the elimination of five federal departments, Perry’s plan leaves too much guesswork.
  • Other spending reform proposals don’t make up for the lack of specifics on spending cuts. For example, Perry proposes to eliminate earmarks. That’s already happened. He says he’d cut non-defense discretionary spending by $100 billion, but that’s a relatively small sum and letting military spending off the hook is disappointing. Proposing to “require emergency spending to be spent only on emergencies” sounds nice but would a President Perry stick to it if Congress larded up “emergency” legislation for a natural disaster in Texas or some military adventure abroad?

In sum, there’s some okay stuff here, but I don’t think it’s anything those who desire a truly limited federal government can get excited about. That said, Perry could have done a lot worse.

The Debt Ceiling and the Balanced Budget Amendment

The Washington Post editorializes:

A balanced-budget amendment would deprive policymakers of the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies.

A fair point. Statesmen should have the ability to “address national security and economic emergencies.” But the same day’s paper included this graphic on the growth of the national debt:

National Debt

Does this look like the record of policymakers making sensible decisions, running surpluses in good year and deficits when they have to “address national security and economic emergencies”? Of course not. Once Keynesianism gave policymakers permission to run deficits, they spent with abandon year after year. And that’s why it makes sense to impose rules on them, even rules that leave less flexibility than would be ideal if you had ideal statesmen. Indeed, the debt ceiling itself should be that kind of rule, one that limits the amount of debt policymakers can run up. But it has obviously failed.

We’ve become so used to these stunning, incomprehensible, unfathomable levels of deficits and debt — and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars — that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1980, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s sailing past $14 trillion.

Historian John Steele Gordon points out how unnecessary our situation is:

There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.

It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) — no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority — called it “porky.”

Annual federal spending rose by a trillion dollars when Republicans controlled the government from 2001 to 2007. It has risen another trillion during the Bush-Obama response to the financial crisis. So spending every year is now twice what it was when Bill Clinton left office. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find wasteful, extravagant, and unnecessary programs to cut back or eliminate. They could find some of them here in this report by Chris Edwards.

In the Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Just so. When it becomes clear that Congress as a body cannot be trusted with the management of the public fisc, then bind them down with the chains of the Constitution, even — or especially — chains that deny them the flexibility they have heretofore abused.

What Are Republicans Thinking?!?

I posted recently at International Liberty about the stunning political incompetence of Republican Senators, who reportedly are willing to give Obama an increase in the debt limit in exchange for a vote (yes, just a vote) on a balanced budget amendment.

As I explained, there is no way they can get the necessary two-thirds support to approve an amendment, so why trade a meaningless and symbolic vote on a BBA for meaningful and real approval of more borrowing authority for Obama? My analogy yesterday was that this was like trading an all-star baseball player for a utility infielder in the minor leagues.

I did acknowledge that forcing a vote on a BBA was a worthwhile endeavor, but said that the GOP has that power anyhow, so why trade away something valuable to get something you already can get for free?

Little did I realize that Republicans already did force a vote on the balanced budget amendment. Less than one month ago, on March 2, Senator Lee of Utah got a vote on a “Sense of the Senate” resolution in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Senator Lee’s resolution received 58 votes, which is nice, but an actual amendment would need a two-thirds supermajority, so this test vote demonstrated that there is no way to approve an amendment this year.

I’m glad Senator Lee proposed his resolution. I’m glad Senators were forced to go on the record.

But I’m mystified, flabbergasted, and stunned that Republicans apparently are willing to give Obama a bigger debt limit in exchange for something they already got.

Returning to our baseball analogy, this would be like the Yankees giving Derek Jeter to the Red Sox in exchange for a player they already have, such as Alex Rodriguez. I imagine New York sportswriters would be dumbfounded by such stupidity and would rip the team’s management to shreds. So that gives you an idea of how I feel about what’s happening in Washington.

As I noted in my earlier post, I’ll soon write about the fiscal reforms fiscal conservatives should demand in exchange for a higher debt limit.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission and Health Care Spending

Following up on what Dan and Chris have said …

If the co-chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed eliminating the federal deficit, rather than “reduc[ing] it to 2.2 percent of GDP by 2015.”  Yawn. They would have proposed cutting federal spending (currently, 24 percent of GDP and rising) to match federal tax revenue (currently at 15 percent of GDP).  But the co-chairs proposed only to “bring spending down to 22 percent and eventually 21 percent of GDP.”  Not only does that elicit another yawn, but since the co-chairs only asked for half a loaf, they won’t even get that much.

If the co-chairs were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed a balanced-budget amendment.  They would have proposed block-granting Medicaid.  They would have proposed implementing Medicare vouchers immediately.  (Vouchers are the only way to reduce Medicare spending while protecting seniors from government rationing.  They would also change the political dynamics that repeatedly stymie efforts to reduce Medicare spending.)  Instead, the co-chairs propose the same ol’ failed strategy of trying to limit Medicare and Medicaid spending using government price-and-exchange controls, which they euphemistically describe as “rebates” and ”payment reforms.”  Along the same lines, they propose strengthening IPAB, ObamaCare’s rationing board.  IPAB’s mandate is – you guessed it – to ration care by fiddling with Medicare and Medicaid’s price and exchange controls.  It will therefore inevitably fall prey to the same political buzzsaw.  To appease Republicans, the co-chairs propose unwise and unconstitutional federal rules that would prevent patients injured by negligent physicians from recovering the full amount they are due (euphemism:  medical malpractice liability “reform”).  Finally, the co-chairs propose that if federal health spending continues to grow faster than GDP growth plus 1 percent, Congress should consider “a premium support system for Medicare” (which could mean vouchers) and “a robust public option and/or all-payer system” for people under age 65 – a debate that wouldn’t even begin until 2020.

Fiscal Commission members, congresscritters, and citizens who are serious about reducing federal spending and deficits – and who are looking for specific ways to cut government spending – should instead consult Cato’s excellent web site DownsizingGovernment.org.