A few weeks ago, I wrote a post explaining a few possible ways we could raise revenue, in light of the – as of yet accounted for – long-term structural deficits in the Obama budget. Somewhere in the post, I kind of casually dismissed the idea that we could rein in deficits by cutting spending. I was criticized a little in the comments, but I thought – and still think – that I had good reason for dismissing the possibility of spending cuts: it’s simply a political non-starter. And as Bruce Bartlett explains, this probably won’t change any time soon:
Direct presidential control over spending is extremely limited. By law, he must spend every dollar appropriated by Congress. And presidents have no control at all over three-fifths of the budget devoted to interest on the debt and entitlement programs–those like Medicare for which spending is automatic. Even Congress can’t reduce spending for entitlements unless it changes the law governing eligibility and programmatic operations. In other words, Congress can’t just appropriate less money to Medicare. It doesn’t work that way.
Even if the president’s party controls Congress by a wide margin–as is the case today–getting agreement even on popular measures, such as expanding health coverage, is very, very difficult, as we are seeing. One reason for this is that the Constitution gives the minority party influence disproportionate to its numbers in the Senate. Thus even though Republicans only have 40 seats, they have been very successful in blocking Obama’s health care reform initiative.
How much more strongly do you suppose 40 Senate Democrats would fight a Republican effort to massively cut spending if party control were reversed? What is the likelihood that every Republican would stand in unity for highly unpopular spending cuts that threaten the health and well being of millions of Americans? Just look at the so-called Blue Dog Democrats who are making life difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi despite having a 78-seat majority. There undoubtedly would be an equally large group of Red Dog Republicans fighting every specific budget cut no matter how small.
I’ve made this point a hundred times before, but it’s worth repeating: ultimately, we are going to have to face up to the fact that the only way to put this country on a sustainable fiscal standing is by having more, and higher, taxes.