A mumble, not a shout

Once I was finished reading the section devoted to spending discipline in the GOP’s “Pledge to America,” I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That’s a nice start, Rep. Boehner. So, what else ya’ got?”

I realize it’s probably not politically likely that someone who is hoping to become Speaker of the House would be eager to embrace a line-by-line accounting of all the programs the GOP might like to cut if given the chance. But that might even assume too much. Are we really sure Republicans are generally interested in scaling back the scope of government much at all?

They seem interested in ending the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the product of a Republican president that was supported by a great many Republican congressmen. And the general slope of the budget trend seems to provide them with at least a target for some light finger wagging. But ending the excessive spending now seems a bit like an alcoholic apologizing for breaking the living room lamp during his last bender and promising to never, ever do it again.

The proposals in the Pledge seem . . . well, nice. It’s a nice idea to restrain Congress’ own budget. It’s nice to hold weekly votes on specific spending programs. It’s nice to try to reverse the spending of the past two years. And it’s a nice (even a great) idea to have some kind of “hard cap” on spending. (In fact, structural reforms to the budget process are quite important to the overall fight to limit government. If done right, that is. It’s not at all clear what the GOP has in mind on this one right now.)

But looking at the policy reality beyond the pleasantries makes the smile fade. The problem with calling a vote on specific spending programs one by one is that it’s almost impossible to get a majority coalition to pass the bill. The pressure would be intense from those who benefit from the program and no individual member of Congress has an especially compelling reason to vote to kill the spending if they know that the money might just be reallocated to their opponent’s favorite program later.

And keeping a spending cap intact has proven difficult before, even for Republicans when they controlled the Congress and the White House. During the Bush years in which a discretionary spending cap was included in a budget resolution (fiscal years 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2006), Congress burst through them each time. The total cost of busting the caps was an aggregate $147 billion. Of course, this is small compared to the trillion-dollar increases in entitlement spending over the past decade – increases that will only get bigger in the future, too, and swallow up more than the 60% of the budget that it already does. But it’s still money that they promised they wouldn’t spend. That is, up until they spent it.

Perhaps there is still some hope that the small categories of discretionary spending will be tamed a bit. But it may not be because of any specific GOP efforts. It may simply be the effects of gridlock. In any case, the “Pledge to America” is as a mumble, not a shout. A gentle slouching toward smaller government, not a push or even a nudge. I guess you have to start somewhere. Yet, after the spending binge of the Bush years, the task requires much more than simply reversing the spending of the past two years.

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