The trouble with 'brute force' budget processes

Proposals like caps and commissions aren't usually implemented with unrelenting force

Photo illustration/Nader Khouri/KRT/Newscom
A sledgehammer smashes an old radio in this photo illustration. Unfortunately, when it comes to budgeting national money, using the force of a sledgehammer doesn't tend to work out.

As a Concord Coalition issue brief (written by my colleague, Cliff Isenberg) explains, they’re just not very “forceful”:

Process proposals such as caps, commissions, points of order and constitutional amendments are often appealing solutions for politicians because they frequently leave out the specifics of politically difficult decisions necessary to meet the targets. For elected officials, it is far easier to discuss a cap than it is to tell voters that their Social Security or Medicare benefits will be cut or a favorite tax deduction will be eliminated.

As a means of actually reducing deficits, the benefits of process proposals are less clear. In the past, similar proposals have had a mixed track record because they have frequently been poorly designed and weakened with exemptions. For a process proposal to have a meaningful effect on trillion-dollar deficits and our $14 trillion debt, these mistakes of the past must be avoided. An effective budget process proposal should limit exemptions, consider the entire federal budget to be on the table for deficit reduction, include realistic targets, and be accompanied by a bipartisan commitment both to enforce the targets and support the specific spending and revenue policies necessary to meet them.

It’s a lot like our real-world experience with “pay-as-you-go” budget rules, and how we’ve ended up (instead) with “paying-for-hardly-anything-as-we-went” policies.

The sledgehammers turn out to have fly-swatter heads, and the “caps” turn out to be more like cheesecloths. (If you get what I mean.)

Unfortunately, there’s really no easy way to force the tough choices.

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