November 1, 2010 1:10PM

The Budget Hearing Scam

Colbert King, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer‐​winning columnist, has a pretty good handle on how D.C. mayor‐​elect Vincent Gray’s call for “more public input” on the budget would work out in practice:

The council is elected to make decisions, not to take polls. What’s more, people know a set‐​up when they see it. Gray’s scenario, intentionally or not, is a prescription for raising taxes. Here is how it would work:

Council members, with the elections safely behind them, produce a deficit‐​closing term sheet that reads like a doomsday manifesto. It describes deep cuts in areas likely to produce the most screams: public safety, education, health care, workforce reductions, arts and culture, etc.

That is followed by council hearings at which long lines of witnesses representing nonprofit advocacy groups and employee unions produce gripping testimony that predicts untold pain and agony resulting from the projected program and payroll cuts.

Following the hearing, which stretches late into the night or the next morning, the lawmakers conclude, reluctantly of course, that there is strong “public” opposition to cuts in government and that they, as conscientious legislators, have no alternative but to keep the government at its current size and, instead, close the deficit with tax increases on middle‐ and high‐​income D.C. wage‐​earners.

King, a longtime close observer of D.C. politics, is describing an example of the general problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs — every government program has a few beneficiaries who will show up to defend it, while the taxpayers who will pay for each of these programs have much less incentive to devote time and money to opposing proposals for spending.