The Irrelevant Dramatics of the ‘Super Committee’
“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” — St. Augustine
I know a guy who’s 130 pounds overweight, slowly dying from atherosclerosis and diabetes. He’s been living a slouchy lifestyle for the past 10 years: fast food every night, hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since high school, smokes a pack a day. His doctors have been adamant: He must lose weight, start eating healthy and otherwise get fit if you want to live much longer. Indeed, it was just this past summer when the doctors downgraded his life expectancy, telling him if he doesn’t get his act together, he’d better get his affairs in order.
So right then and there he made a resolution: “If I can’t lose 12 pounds by Thanksgiving, I’m going to automatically trigger a new diet and exercise regimen, starting in January 2013. I’ll force my future self to lose 120 pounds by 2021. It’s going to be painful, with half the weight loss coming from cutting calories and half from working out, so you can bet I’ll be motivated to start getting healthy right now.”
Think his plan will work? Neither do I.
Yet when it comes to the actions of the Congressional “Super Committee,” which was attempting a fiscal version of this fitness plan, it’s amazing how reporters take such phony resolve seriously. The Super Committee did indeed miss its deadline for a massive “spending cut” plan. Failure was so inevitable that its members announced it two days early.
I don’t know which is more absurd: that the goal was to find a paltry $120 billion in spending cuts each year for the next 10 years or the idea that they could “trigger” future spending cuts in a budget over which only a future Congress and future president would have full control. (By the way, $120 billion is only 3 percent of total federal spending).
But it’s not as if any of these “cuts” would matter, even if the trigger actually worked. Real spending cuts — you know, the kind where next year’s number is lower than this year’s — are like Sasquatch, space aliens or this year’s National Basketball Association season: lots of people are talking about them, but they don’t really exist.
As Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the Mercatus Center, points out, the “automatic triggers” in the 2011 Budget Control Act rely on the old political trick of baseline budgeting. Congress projects future spending at a given annual rate of increase, say 10 percent. An increase of only five percent can then be billed as a five percent “cut” from the baseline level. But spending still goes up, not down; therefore be advised that, in Washington the word “cut” really means “smaller increase.”
It gets worse; even if the automatic cuts were real, and large enough to put a dent in the deficit, current Congressmen have already pledged to override them in the future. This should surprise no one with knowledge of how Congress traditionally operates. According to Stan Collander of the Washington Monthly, “Federal budget agreements have seldom, if ever, gone the distance. Instead, they have always been changed, waived, ignored or abandoned long before they were scheduled to expire.” Collander cites several sordid and sobering examples from recent United States history where solemn budget deals were broken when their strictures became inconvenient for later Congresses.
So in summary, the Super Committee’s antics are irrelevant. Even if its members could have somehow pulled off a major deal, there still would not have been any real cuts, and these “cuts” would be imposed on future Congresses that could simply ignore them by repealing the 2011 Budget Control Act and passing their own budgets.
If we ever hope to restore fiscal sanity to Congress, drastic measures will be required. Perhaps a balanced budget amendment would help us avoid a Euro-style meltdown. That, alas, must wait until the next election. Most important is a vigilant citizenry that refuses to accept this nonsense. I just hope enough of us can wake up before it’s too late.
Tyler Watts, Ph.D., adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches economics at Ball State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.