During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously said "there you go again" when responding to one of Jimmy Carter's attacks.
Well, the Gipper's ghost is probably looking down from Heaven at the new budget deal between congressional leaders and the Obama Administration and saying "there they go again."
That's because we basically have a repeat of the distasteful 2013 budget deal.
The new agreement, like the 2013 deal, busts the budget caps. In this case, the politicians in DC have approved $50 billion of additional spending for the 2016 fiscal year (which started on October 1) and $30 billion of additional spending in the 2017 fiscal year (starting October 1, 2016).
Which means that the President gets to further undo his biggest fiscal defeat.
And what do Republicans get in exchange?
Many of them want higher defense spending, of course, and some of them doubtlessly are happy to have more domestic spending as well. Those politicians are presumably happy, at least behind closed doors.
Let's look at some fiscal data that must be very depressing for President Obama and other advocates of big government.
Which means, of course, that this information must be very good news for American taxpayers!
Here's a chart looking at annual federal spending since 2000. You'll notice that spending skyrocketed from 2000-2009 (a time when libertarians were justifiably glum), but look at how the growth of government came to a screeching halt after 2009.
Here are some specific numbers culled from the OMB data and CBO data. In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion.
In other words, there's been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn't received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there's been a spending freeze in Washington.
Now let's look at what happens when government is put on a diet.
Notwithstanding the landslide rejection of Obama and his policies in the mid-term election, I don't think this will produce big changes in policy over the next two years.
Simply stated, supporters of limited government do not have the votes to override presidential vetoes, so there's no plausible strategy for achieving meaningful tax reform or genuine entitlement reform.
But that doesn't mean that there won't be important fiscal policy battles. I'm especially worried about whether we can hold on to the modest fiscal restraint (and sequester enforcement) we achieved as part of the 2011 debt limit fight.
Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though "immediate" means over 10 years and "budget cuts" means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).
But that's the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we're seeing today revolves around a "super-committee" that's been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional "deficit reduction" over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).
And much of the squabbling deals with whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.
Here's what Republicans like:
The super-committee must use the "current law" baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can't use repeal of the "Bush tax cuts for the rich" as a revenue raiser.
Here's what Democrats like:
There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is "impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes").
In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be "vital" to not only "protect" the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the "brutal" sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.
But you don't have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about "shared sacrifice."
This doesn't mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn't mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid and Pelosi.
But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it's always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it's not a good idea.
If it is true that a failure to increase the debt limit on August 2nd has the potential to bring about economic Armageddon, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if it’s a good idea to allow the political class in Washington to continue collectively play God with our lives? After all, these people are fallible human beings.
In a similar vein, Sheldon Richman reminds us of what government really is in a new column on the issue of federal debt. I like Richman’s statement because one need not be a hardcore libertarian to appreciate the message:
Government is not some higher super-competent entity like the man pretending to be the Wizard of Oz wanted the people to think he was. It’s a coercive organization of limited, flawed, and essentially ignorant men and women who, having been anointed in an election after campaigns hawking snake oil, are presumptuous enough to think they are capable of making wise decisions on our behalf.
Having worked in both federal and state government, I know from first-hand experience that there’s no wizard behind the curtain. My gut tells me that some of the pundits and analysts who display an almost child-like belief in the capabilities of government might think differently had they spent time behind the curtain.
It is my hope that the circus-like atmosphere in Washington over raising the debt ceiling will cause more Americans to question why so much power and money has been placed in the hands of imperfect (to put it politely) men and women. Therefore, while I think the odds that Republicans and Democrats will strike a deal to substantively cut spending are somewhere around zero, perhaps the sordid spectacle will generate more popular support for downsizing the federal government.
The “Gang of Six” senators has released an outline of budget reforms that would supposedly reduce deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. Revenues would rise by at least $1 trillion, while spending would be theoretically trimmed by various procedural mechanisms. The plan promises to “strengthen the safety net,” “maintain investments,” and “maintain the basic structure” of Medicare and Medicaid, which doesn’t sound very reform-minded to me.
The Gang of Six plan is a grander version of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent debt-limit proposal, which was aimed at putting off any spending cuts. The Gang outline has a few specific cuts, but the document mainly consists of promises to restrain spending and raise taxes in the future.
I’m surprised that Sen. Tom Coburn supports the Gang plan because his office has just released a massive study chock-full of specific spending-cut ideas. The Gang plan is all about avoiding specifics, while Coburn’s plan has 621 pages of details.
Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan would reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next decade. The plan includes some tax increases, but the core of the document is a line-by-line analysis of every department’s budget, with lists of programs to cut and terminate. The plan includes a wealth of useful information that will aid policymakers interested in cutting spending for years to come.
So congratulations to Roland, Joelle, and the whole Coburn team for their late nights spent pouring through the budget, and for their great job documenting their findings with more than 3,000 endnotes.
Every Senate and House office should perform a similar exercise of proposing specific cuts. The government faces a debt crisis, yet only Coburn, Sen. Rand Paul, and perhaps a few others in Congress have put any effort into identifying unneeded programs.
Look on the official websites of most members of Congress and you will see discussions in support of spending on education, seniors, energy, research, highways and many other activities. When members are in front of TV cameras, they sound like they take the debt crisis seriously, but most congressional websites reveal a different mindset where federal spending is always wonderful and helpful to society.
Coburn’s staff tells me that about a dozen staffers chipped in on its Back in Black effort in recent months. If other House and Senate offices went through such an exercise, it would help members clarify their positions about the role of government and help them think about spending trade-offs.
My summer homework assignment for every congressional office is to go through a Coburn/Paul-style budget downsizing exercise. That could lead to more serious spending debates and more concrete proposals than the generally meaningless bullets points issued by the Gang of Six.
Cato Institute scholars Daniel J. Mitchell and Chris Edwards evaluate the plans offered by Republicans for lowering federal spending using a so-called "Cut, Cap and Balance" proposal that would make small cuts to federal spending in the short run, cap federal spending, and balance the federal budget using a tax-limited balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.