Tag: John Boehner

John Boehner’s Spending and Debt Promise

House Speaker John Boehner has promised to tie substantial spending cuts to upcoming debt-limit legislation. He said spending cuts will have to be at least as large as the dollar value of the allowed debt increase. Thus, if the legislation increased the legal debt limit by $2 trillion, then Congress would have to cut spending over time by at least $2 trillion.

How can we be sure that spending cuts are real?

There are only two types of solid and tough-to-reverse spending cuts—legislated changes to reduce entitlement benefit levels and complete termination of discretionary programs. Republicans will have to define what time period they are talking about, but let’s assume it’s the standard 10-year budget window.

  • Entitlements: The legislation, for example, could change the indexing formula for initial Social Security benefits from wages to prices. The Congressional Budget Office says that change would reduce spending by $137 billion over 10 years (2012-2021). Other options include raising the retirement age for Social Security and raising deductibles for Medicare.
  • Discretionary: Each session of Congress decides the following year’s discretionary spending. Promises of discretionary spending cuts beyond one year are meaningless. Thus, the various promises in Republican and Democratic budget plans to freeze various parts of discretionary spending through 2021 or reduce spending to 2008 levels over the long term have no weight. Those are not real cuts.

The only way to get real cuts in discretionary spending—cuts that would be tough to reverse out in later years—is complete program termination and repeal of the program’s authorization. That way, policymakers in future years would generally need at least 60 votes in the Senate to reinstate the spending.

Thus, if the GOP promises to save $50 billion over 10 years by reducing the levels of Title 1 grants to the states for K-12 schools, that is not a real and solid cut. However, if they pass a law to repeal Title 1 spending altogether, that cut may well be sustained over the long term.

To make spending cuts even more secure, the GOP should also insist on a statutory cap on overall outlays with a supermajority requirement to break, as I’ve outlined here. For program termination ideas, see www.DownsizingGovernment.org.

In sum, the GOP needs to ensure that spending cuts tied to the debt-limit vote are either:

  1. Changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefit levels, or
  2. Discretionary program terminations.

    Promises to hold down future discretionary spending levels and partial program trims are not real spending cuts.

    House Leadership’s Transparency Leadership

    Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wrote a letter to the House clerk calling for new data standards that will make Congress more open and accountable. Spot on.

    The THOMAS legislative database was a huge improvement when it came online in 1995 at the behest of the new Republican Congress, but the Internet has moved on. Today, publishing text or PDF documents is inadequate transparency. It’s more important to make available the data that represent various documents and activities in the legislative process. “Web 2.0” will use that data various ways to deliver public oversight.

    I’ll have much more to say in the near future, but here are the kinds of things get to full transparency, which the House leaders’ letter appears meant to imply:

    • Specific Formats: Documents and data must be published in specific formats that allow Web sites, researchers, and reporters to interpret and use text and data easily and automatically. The SEC recently began requiring businesses to report financial information in a format called eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). This will improve corporate transparency and enable investors to make better decisions. The public should have equally good information about government.
    • Flagging/Tagging: Within these data formats, key information must be “flagged” or “tagged” to highlight the things that matter: spending proposals, agencies and programs affected by a proposed law, recipients of federal money, existing statutes that may be amended, and so on. Flagging/tagging will make the relevance of documents and information immediately apparent to various interests.
    • Bulk Access and Real-Time Updates: Documents and information must be available in bulk, so that new users have full access, and it must be updated in real time, so the public can “see” changes as they happen. It also must be version-controlled so the “story” of a policy’s formation or execution can be told. The public should never have to learn what is in a bill after it passes.
    • Authoritative Sources: The mishmash of data sources that now exist must be replaced by authoritative sourcing. Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and other entities must publish and maintain their documents and data. The public must know once and for all where the definitive versions of documents and data will be.

    Disclosure—simply “putting bills online”—was the beginning of the legislative transparency project, not the end. The many transparency Web sites out there have the bills, but they don’t have the data they need to help the public get their government under control.

    As I suggested some months ago, House Republicans are positioned to take the transparency mantle from President Obama and the Democrats. Web 2.0 thought leader Tim O’Reilly—no Republican cheerleader—has already called the race, Tweeting last week, “The ‘R’s in Congress are doing better on this than ‘D’s did.” Assuming action consistent with this letter, the House Republicans will indeed soon have the transparency lead.

    Monday Links

    Obama’s Little Evidence Problem

    Last month I wrote a post on President Obama’s selective citation of evidence when debating which education programs to kill and which to keep. Well yesterday the administration struck again, issuing the following statement opposing a bill that would revive DC’s bleeding-out voucher program:

    STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY

    H.R. 471 – Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act

    (Rep. Boehner, R-Ohio, and 50 cosponsors)

    While the Administration appreciates that H.R. 471 would provide Federal support for improving public schools in the District of Columbia (D.C.), including expanding and improving high-quality D.C. public charter schools, the Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill.  The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students.  Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students. Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.  While the President’s FY 2012 Budget requests funding to improve D.C. public schools and expand high-quality public charter schools, the Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child.

    So, as I wrote last month, while the Prez. has no problem calling for heaps of dollars for such proven failures as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – $1.27 billion, to be exact – he won’t support $20 million for something that rigorous research actually works, quoting Andrew Coulson’s recent congressional testimony:

    that students attending private schools thanks to this program have equal or better academic performance than their peers in the local public schools, and have significantly higher graduation rates. This, and very high levels of parental satisfaction, com[ing] at an average per pupil cost of around $7,000. By contrast, per pupil spending on k-12 public education in the nation’s capital was roughly $28,000 during the 2008-09 school year.

    And such positive results, again in contrast to the President’s statement, are not an aberration for school choice. The highest-calibre research on choice has almost always found clear benefits stemming from it, and has never found negative outcomes.

    Obviously I can’t read the President’s mind – he might oppose the voucher program but otherwise love big education spending for philosophical reasons, or he might just be appeasing teachers’ unions – but one thing I do know is that a fair examination of the evidence simply cannot support killing DC vouchers while spending lavishly everywhere else.

    The Transparency Contest Heats Up

    Back in January, I wrote in Politico about the potential for House Republicans to “eclipse” President Obama on transparency. Perhaps the most important element of that piece was the subtle pun on the “government in the sunshine” motif. (Sunshine? Eclipse? Get it?) House Republicans appear to be more ready than ever to move forward on transparency with the announcement by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) of a working group to update the House’s use of technology.

    That could end up as so much window dressing—Twitter accounts for everybody!—or it could result in substantive changes, such as publishing bills and amendments in real time (from committee markups, too) and tagging them with semantic data to make their meaning readily and instantly available to the public. How about publishing the House video feed (committee feeds, too) with real-time tags indicating what bill is being debated and who is speaking? That kind of data will give the public entrée to the House like they’ve never had before.

    Meanwhile, President Obama seems to have ducked a meeting at which he was to receive an award for his transparency work. It didn’t strike me as quite fitting for him to get such an award. He’s good on transparency but has not reached the lofty goals he campaigned on. The House Government Reform Committee is having a hearing on the Freedom of Information Act today (9:30 am EST start-time), an area where the administration seems also to have come up short of expectations.

    Now, whatever miscue prevented the president from accepting his transparency award is not substance, and the formation of a task force is not substantive change either. But the Republicans appear to have the keener interest in transparency at the moment.

    Watch this space for the results of work we’ve been doing to show both Congress and the president how to be more transparent. So the irony is not lost on you the way that sunshine/eclipse pun was, I’ll put it in italics: You can’t see our transparency work quite yet. But soon we’ll set out what House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the Obama administration should be doing to win plaudits on the transparency merits.

    Republican $100 Billion Spending Cut

    A top agenda item for the incoming House Republicans is to immediately start cutting spending. The GOP promised to reduce “nondefense” (or alternatively “nonsecurity”) spending for 2011 to the 2008 level, representing a $100 billion cut. GOP leaders are now being accused of backsliding on that promise, so let’s take a look at the numbers.

    The idea is to reduce fiscal 2011 “budget authority” to the level it was in fiscal 2008. The chart shows the growth in nondefense budget authority since 2000. The spike in 2009 is from $265 billion in discretionary spending authorized in the “stimulus” bill.

    Congress currently has a “continuing resolution” in place that keeps 2011 spending at about the same level as 2010, as shown in the chart. Thus, the House GOP will need to cut spending for the remainder of this fiscal year by about $55 billion to hit the 2008 level. That is less than $100 billion, but the higher cut number was based on proposed spending by Obama for 2011 that wasn’t enacted.  

    The important thing is that Congress needs to start cutting all types of spending right away. We face a fiscal emergency as debt is exploding, and there are many federal spending activities that are damaging to society and the economy. The GOP should cut defense and entitlement spending as well, but nondefense discretionary cuts are a good place to start.

    In considering cuts, note that about $136 billion in nondefense discretionary “stimulus” bill money is still sloshing through the government in 2011 and beyond, so spending cuts (unfortunately) won’t starve the bureaucracies as much as liberals might fear.

    The chart puts proposed spending cuts in context. House GOP leaders now admit that they spent too much during the past decade, and indeed the chart shows that nondefense discretionary spending jumped $264 billion over the last decade. Much of the increase came when the GOP controlled the House, Senate, and White House, so now is the GOP’s chance to start reversing out those Bush-era increases.

    Data note: current stimulus and nondefense discretionary budget authority data are available on pages 13 and 21 of CBO’s August outlook.

    Toward Restoring Constitutional Government

    Today POLITICO Arena asks:

    In light of today’s reading of the Constitution in the new House, what misinterpretations of the Constitution do you regularly see in American politics? And are House Republicans implying that the previous Democratic majority did not have a firm grasp of the government’s founding document?

    My response:

    Thanks to the Tea Party, as I wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Congress seems to be rediscovering the Constitution – or at least many House Republicans seem to be. When members read the document aloud today, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they’ll be throwing down a marker: “We take the Constitution seriously, and intend to abide by its principles.” If true, how refreshing.

    This is not a partisan matter. As many Republicans have said – albeit, some only after November’s elections – both parties for years have ignored the Constitution’s limits on political power. To confirm that, we need look no further than to James Madison, the principal author of the document, who assured skeptical ratifiers in Federalist 45 that the powers authorized by the Constitution were “few and defined.” That hardly describes today’s federal behemoth.

    Thus, the main “misinterpretation” has been over the very idea of constitutional limits – particularly as inherent in the doctrine of enumerated powers, the principle that “We the People” gave Congress only 18 enumerated powers. The Commerce Clause, for example, was written mainly to ensure interstate commerce unfettered by state interference, not to enable Congress to regulate every aspect of life. And the General Welfare Clause was meant to limit Congress’s taxing power pursuant to its enumerated ends to objects of national, not particular, concern: it wasn’t meant to enable Congress to redistribute private wealth at will.

    The great change came during the New Deal, of course, after FDR’s infamous Court packing threat, when a cowed Court began turning the Constitution on its head. But don’t take my word for that constitutional legerdemain. Here’s Roosevelt, writing to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1935: “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.” And here’s Rexford Tugwell, one of the principal architects of the New Deal, reflecting on his handiwork some 30 years later: “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document [i.e., the Constitution] intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

    So when today’s liberals tell us the Constitution authorizes the vast federal programs that now reduce so many Americans to government dependents, they reveal their historical ignorance – or their political ambition. And they’re reduced to the silliness we saw in Tuesday’s New York Times, where the Times editorialists ranted against today’s constitutional reading as “a theatrical production of unusual pomposity.” Illustrating their own penchant for pomposity, they then dug into their bag of adjectives and let loose: “a self-important flourish,” “their Beltway insider ritual of self-glorification,” “a presumptuous and self-righteous act,” “an air of vacuous fundamentalism,” ”all of this simply eyewash,” “a ghastly waste of time.” They must have been emotionally drained when they finished their screed.

    The Constitution is not a blank slate, details to follow, as decided by transient majorities. Were it that, it never would have been ratified. After all, we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of overweening government, and fought a Civil War to institute at last the grand principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nor will those principles be restored in a day. But today’s reading will start a debate that is sorely needed, at the end of which one can hope for restoration.