Democrats’ Wel­come Dis­ci­pline

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

On this tax- fil­ing week­end, a bit of con­so­la­tion is com­ing from an un­ex­pected quar­ter in Wash­ing­ton. In­stead of promis­ing more un­af­ford­able tax cuts that go mainly to the rich­est Amer­i­cans, as their Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts have done for the past six years, key Democrats are im­pos­ing some real spend­ing dis­ci­pline on them­selves.

That is the un­der­re­ported story in the bud­get res­o­lu­tions passed by the House and Se­nate just be­fore the Easter re­cess and now headed for tweak­ing in a con­fer­ence be­tween the cham­bers and fi­nal ap­proval in the next few weeks.

The res­o­lu­tions dif­fer in de­tail but have an im­por­tant com­mon fea­ture: a pay- as- you- go rule, short- handed as pay- go, which re­quires Congress to off­set ev­ery in­crease in an en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram or new tax cut with an equiv­a­lent sav­ing some­where else to pre­vent fur­ther ad­di­tions to the bud­get deficit.

The re­turn to pay- go, which Repub­li­cans jet­ti­soned in 2001 to make it eas­ier to pass their tax cuts, is a tri­umph for two stub­born men in par­tic­u­lar — the Demo­cratic chair­men of the Se­nate and House bud­get com­mit­tees, Sen. Kent Con­rad of North Dakota and Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina.

The Com­mit­tee for a Re­spon­si­ble Fed­eral Bud­get, a non­par­ti­san watch­dog group com­mit­ted to the bat­tle against deficits, said in a state­ment on April 6 that it “ strongly ap­plauds both the House and Se­nate Bud­get Com­mit­tees for re­in­stat­ing and ad­her­ing to pay- as- you- go. It took a tremen­dous amount of re­solve to com­ply with the pay- go prin­ci­ple . . . in the face of pres­sures to pay for pop­u­lar pro­grams like SCHIP [ the chil­dren’s health in­sur­ance pro­gram] and the farm bill through deficit spend­ing.”

The same state­ment cau­tioned that “ the heavy lift­ing on pay- go . . . still lies ahead,” when off­sets must be found for pro­posed in­creases in spend­ing for pro­grams such as SCHIP or for ex­tend­ing some pop­u­lar mid­dle- class tax cuts now sched­uled to ex­pire in 2010. Both par­ties in Congress and Pres­i­dent Bush have also promised to pro­tect mil­lions of peo­ple from au­to­matic tax in­creases through the al­ter­na­tive min­i­mum tax.

In an in­ter­view last week, Spratt said that he agrees that tough tests of the pay- go prin­ci­ple will come up in the months ahead and that he is pre­pared for the in­evitable fights. “ I have three peo­ple on the Bud­get Com­mit­tee staff spend­ing their full time mon­i­tor­ing leg­is­la­tion to see that ev­ery bill meets the pay- go stan­dard,” he said.

Some Repub­li­cans have com­plained that Democrats have given them­selves an easy “ out” by writ­ing a pay- go rule that al­lows the re­quired off­sets to take ef­fect not in the same year as the in­creased spend­ing but within the bud­getary “ win­dow” of six to 11 years.

Spratt said that this is not a dodge but a sim­ple con­ces­sion to the re­al­ity that changes in en­ti­tle­ments and taxes have de­layed ef­fects. “ No one is try­ing to game the sys­tem,” he said. “ The dis­ci­pline [ of pay- go] is strongly sup­ported by Speaker Pelosi and by our mem­bers.”

That is cer­tainly true of the Blue Dogs, the 43- mem­ber cau­cus of con­ser­va­tive House Democrats, but I told Spratt that I won­dered if it was re­ally the case for the more lib­eral mem­bers such as Nancy Pelosi.

Spratt re­sponded that the Democrats have been changed by the events of the past 14 years, start­ing with Bill Clin­ton’s first elec­tion. “ Democrats take pride in the bud­get we passed in 1993,” Spratt said. “ You re­mem­ber it passed by one vote in both the House and Se­nate, with no sup­port from Repub­li­cans. De­spite the op­po­si­tion say­ing it would lead to a re­ces­sion, it pro­duced eight years of eco­nomic growth, and ev­ery year the bud­get pic­ture got bet­ter, un­til fi­nally we were run­ning a sur­plus and pay­ing down debt. It changed the coun­try’s per­cep­tion of Democrats.

“ Then Ge­orge Bush came in with his deep tax cuts, and the deficits re­turned. So he changed the coun­try’s per­cep­tion of Repub­li­cans in a neg­a­tive way.

“ The con­trast has worked to our ad­van­tage — and that’s why Pelosi made pay- go one of the pri­or­i­ties for the first 100 hours.”

As Spratt read­ily con­cedes, paygo is no more than a first step to­ward fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity in Wash­ing­ton.

By it­self, it does not deal with the long- term and mas­sive prob­lems of fi­nanc­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care ben­e­fits for the re­tir­ing baby boom gen­er­a­tion. But it can be, if en­forced, an ef­fec­tive way of pre­vent­ing the bud­get deficit from get­ting worse.

By the stan­dards of Wash­ing­ton, that is real progress.

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