Presidents, Congress, and the Budget

Addressing my recent post on America’s dire fiscal situation, Jamelle writes that “the reflexive, evidence-free dismissal of the CBO scores at the beginning of Conor’s post is enough to convince me that he isn’t actually interested in hearing liberal ideas for bringing the United States back on a firm fiscal footing.” Actually, my belief that the CBO scores are misleading isn’t a reflexive one. It is based on reading numerous pieces on health care legislation that note how the Democrats who wrote it intentionally did so in a way to get a favorable score. I’ve been particularly attuned to this because I follow the work of my friend Peter Suderman, even when he writes about stuff that wouldn’t otherwise interest me.

He writes:

When the Congressional Budget Office scores a bill, its looks at the budgetary effects over the immediate ten year window. So on the health care bill, the headline cost of $849 billion covers the period between 2010 and 2019. Problem is, it’s a misleading figure since most of the new programs don’t actually kick in until 2014, and, as a result, most of the spending—99 percent, according to the CBO—doesn’t occur until the final six years. That means it’s not actually a very good reflection of how much it’s going to cost to run the bill’s new programs over a decade-long period.
Think of it this way: If you decided to add the cost of a gym membership to your budget next year, at $100 a month, it would cost you $1200. But if you decided to wait until July to join, the cost would only be $600 in next year’s budget. Cheap, right? Well, not really, because the following year, and every year after, the membership would cost you the full $1200. That’s basically what Democrats are doing here: Holding off on implementing the bulk of the reform’s new programs and new spending in order to make the initial total seem less expensive.

Online and in conversation I’ve sought out counterarguments. As best as I can tell, Peter’s analysis is correct. I’m unsure why Jamelle would assume that I took my stance reflexively, let alone assume that my thoughts on one particular instance of CBO scoring implies that I haven’t any interest in Democratic efforts to fix the budget deficit.

Jamelle goes on to say this:

it’s worth reminding Conor that in the three decades since the Republican Party became the dominant political coalition in American politics, the deficit has been reduced exactly once, and that was during Bill Clinton’s presidency. All three Republican presidents of the “conservative era” – Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush – were responsible for significant increases in the deficit, and in the case of the latter, a tremendous increase in the overall national debt.

This is a paragraph out of a Gene Healy nightmare. Implicit in it is the notion that the President of the United States determines the federal deficit. My own political analysis figures Congress as a relevant factor in weighing which party is most fiscally responsible. It is a rather uncontroversial reading of history to say that Ronald Reagan, given his druthers, would’ve cut domestic spending more than he did, while Congressional Democrats were the staunches opponents of his government shrinking agenda. I haven’t reviewed George H.W. Bush’s tenure for quite some time, but President Clinton, given his druthers, would’ve passed a costly universal health care bill at the very least, and it is rather strange to give Democrats all the credit for the deficit reduction that happened during his watch given the explicit fiscal conservatism of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 House takeover, the peace dividend the United States enjoyed at the end of the Cold War, and an economic boom unprecedented in history.

I certainly credit President Clinton for being a better domestic policy president than his successor, and it is fair to say that Republican presidents fail the test of fiscal responsibility when it comes to defense spending. When it comes to electing Senators and Congressional Representatives, however, a perfectly rational case can be made that voters in many districts are better off pulling the lever for Republicans. In fact, my intuition, which I haven’t studied enough to confirm, is that the country is best served by a centrist Democratic president and a Republican led Congress hell bent on improving the efficiency of government. It is fashionable now for Democrats to cite the fiscal discipline of President Clinton, and the profligate spending of George W. Bush, but they never include the fact that Bush’s massively expensive prescription drug benefit was very popular among Democrats in Congress, and that insofar as there were voices calling him out for his spending, they were more often than not coming from the right.