National Debt

Passing the Purse

Congress can't delegate fiscal policy, but it can balance the budget without raising taxes.


Clearly what we need is a super-duper committee. Instead of six Republicans and six Democrats, it will have three members from each party, and its deficit reduction plan will go directly to the president for his signature, bypassing Congress entirely. This time for sure!

The recurrent fantasy that Congress can delegate difficult fiscal decisions to an autonomous body—whether a commission or, as in the case of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a subset of itself—speaks volumes about the abysmal failure of our elected representatives to do the work they were hired to do. Now that the latest attempt to reassign the power of the purse has collapsed in ignominy, it hardly seems likely that Congress will rise to the task, especially since it has not managed to pass an actual budget (as opposed to continuing resolutions) in more than two and a half years.

What about the "automatic cuts"? Under the legislation that raised the debt limit last summer, the super committee's failure to settle on a plan that would reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years is supposed to trigger that amount in spending cuts, with half coming from the military budget and the rest coming from various domestic programs.

But Republican hawks have been squawking about that prospect for months, absurdly warning that a 10 percent reduction in projected Defense Department appropriations will leave the United States, which accounts for more than two-fifths of the world's military spending, defenseless against its enemies. These profligate Pentagon patrons have plenty of time to block the cuts, which do not begin taking effect until January 2013.

"The Congress is not bound by this," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted last month. "It's something we passed. We can reverse it." And once Republicans start tinkering with the military cuts, you can be sure Democrats will want to boost domestic spending commensurately.

But let's assume that the cuts really do begin to materialize in a year and (even more improbably) that Congress does not rescind them at any point in the next decade. What is the upshot of this sequestration, which Fox News deems "painful," The Washington Post describes as "punitive," and White House spokesman Jay Carney calls "onerous"?

Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, calculates that the automatic cuts mean federal spending will rise by $1.65 trillion from 2012 through 2021, about 8 percent less than the currently projected increase of $1.8 trillion. That's right: These "cuts" are not really cuts at all; they are modest reductions in the increases that Congress takes for granted. How pathetic is it that Congress sets the bar for fiscal responsibility so low and still can't get over it?

After it became clear that the super committee was exhausted even at the thought of leaping this obstacle, the White House released a statement that declared, "Congress needs to do its job here and make the kind of tough choices to live within its means that American families make every day." That sentiment would be more credible if it came from an administration that had ever proposed a balanced budget, instead of one that has presided over record-breaking deficits.

But let us take President Obama at his word, keeping in mind that Congress has no means of its own and can only spend money it takes from other people. If Congress lived within its means, it would not have racked up a debt equivalent to the nation's GDP. At this point the least it can do is stop spending money it does not have.

Federal revenue in fiscal year 2011 came to $2.3 trillion. Adjusting for inflation, that is roughly equal to total federal spending in 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration. Any member of Congress who thinks returning to that level of spending is inconceivable needs to be replaced by someone with a better imagination.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. I heard the cuts are equivalent to spending $5 less an average paycheck -I’m not so sure that wasn’t a sunny speculation

    1. …salutes you.

  2. Passing a yearly budget for the federal government is a fundamental responsibility of Congress. Lawmakers do not have to spend their time naming post offices or passing health care reform. But they do have to pass a budget.

    Remember this, the next time one of the resident leftards hereabouts gets all huffily self-righteous, re: the well-grounded libertarian disinclination to trust the feds on damned near anything fiscally-related.

  3. Was there any serious thinker in this country who actually believed the super committee was going to come up with anything whatsoever? Or who believed they would follow through on the automatic part? Can you believe that worthless bastard McCain was the GOP nominee in 2008? No wonder the rank and file voters don’t want Romney shoved down their throats.

  4. O/T: Major Inconsistencies Found In Seattle Protestor Story

    A woman who told police she was three months pregnant after she was pepper sprayed at an Occupy Seattle march this month, told police she was three months pregnant in September when facing arrest.


    Fox’s former foster mother, Lark Stebbins, told the Seattle Times Fox is a “compulsive liar” and a “wannabe drama queen.”

    “Three months pregnant” in September… and then “three months pregnant” again, in November.

    Oh. MY.

    1. Considering the average OWS grasp of economics, politics, and hygiene, her lousy arithmetic should be no surprise

      1. “She just happens to be part Possum-American, you lousy fascists!

        1. Who you callin’ lousey??

    2. If I ever have her as a guest on my show, she can walk out on stage to the tune of “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”

      1. Okay, it was a lie… but it wasn’t a lie-lie!

        1. Damn. Even I wasn’t that stupid.

    3. Blame it on the rain. God this weather sucks.

    4. I repeatedly asked if she could provide any medical records to back up her claim ? a claim that doctors at Harborview Medical Center said her clash with police caused the miscarriage ? but she said she would be in touch with a case worker. Lacking a way to verify her claim (except asking for her records) I said I would follow up.

      So I tracked Fox down today at the Occupy Seattle encampment at Seattle Central Community College. Had she contacted anyone at the hospital? “I can’t go to the hospital until Sunday or Monday,” she said. Fox said that she’s having a memorial service for her miscarried baby and one of her fellow occupiers is planning a candlelight vigil, which will consume her time until next week. Can’t she get away to the hospital for an hour? “No.” I provided Fox a copy of a records release for the hospital, which she put into her coat, but again Fox said she couldn’t go request her records until next week. I offered her a ride to and from the hospital, but she again refused. I explained to Fox that, lacking any evidence of her claim, her story was increasingly subject to scrutiny […] her story looks increasingly dubious.

      1. On advice of my attorney, I respectfully decline to comment at this time.

        1. Phantom babies are the 1%.

    5. When asked by KIRO FM about the police report, she denied remembering the incident. Then, Fox changed her story and said that the “police report must have been wrong,” because she told police she was one month pregnant at the time.

      I’m pretty sure you can’t figure out you’re even pregnant until more than a month.

    6. Interesting. I had a conversation with a (crazy hippie) girl several years ago who told almost the exact same story about her participation in the G8 protests in Seattle in 1999. She said she was 3 months pregnant, and the tear gas caused her to miscarriage.
      I wonder if this is a rehearsed lie that the backers of these protests disseminate to make any police response to protest seem more brutal, or if it is a type of psychopathology associated with this type of person (crazy hippies, not necessarily protesters in general).

      Also, I totally heard George Takei’s voice with your Oh. MY.

  5. This article makes me want to cry. Not because I think we’re going into the toilet, but because the average voter doesn’t seem to know or care and the elected dipshits in Congress know it.

    1. Well, if your handle is any indication of your geographic location, at least you can stock up on guns and ammo to ride out the coming calamity.

  6. What are you doing to resist your wealth privilege?

    1. I now use the same native litter bearers two, sometimes even three days in succession, rather than simply cannibalizing them outright at the end of any given business day.

      1. “wealth privilege”

        Oh, man, are we fucked. Now there’s yet another bullshit term.

  7. OPA! Let’s all go the Greek Way.…..ow-2011-11

  8. Super Committee

    The name alone sounds fucking stupid. Like something a mediocre fucking marketing student would come up with after a late night of drinking too much cheap beer (Read: Pabst Blue Ribbon).

    1. Well, European Commission was already taken.

      1. … as was “The Mouseketeer Club.”

    2. What we need is the Superfriends now there was an organization that get shit done… am I right?… eh eh?


      1. Before the grammar cops get me:

        What we need are the …

      2. Fine. Swallow, Come!

      3. Just think of how easily our budget problems could be solved by a gorilla with a bucket of water.

      4. And it will probably be the lame fucking version to the Superfriends. Like the one with the Wonder Twins.

        Shape of…. a Koi Pond. Form of… a sloth.

    3. Agreed – classic MBA-obfuspeak. It was never about acutally finding a solution. It was always about the appearance of attempting to find a solution.

  9. I have a feeling these legislators will find a way to do the job they were sent to Washington to do and come up with a solution that all of their lobbyists can agree on.

  10. Congress has not managed to pass an actual budget in more than two and a half years.

    This is the sort of Mickey Mouse shit characteristic of two-bit banana republics.

    1. “PRESENT!!!”

  11. I don’t understand all this talk about a supercommittee “failure”. It seems to me that it was a rousing success. It allowed the Republican establishment to pretend to the Tea Parties that it didn’t give in on the debt ceiling. It allowed the administration to continue spending. It gave the Democrats a fundraising line about “draconian cuts”. Really, it was only a “failure” if you assume that the goal of its creators was to find real, substantive, spending cuts.

    1. “Really, it was only a “failure” if you assume that the goal of its creators was to find real, substantive, spending cuts.”

      If you don’t care where you are, you can’t be lost.

  12. you can be sure Democrats and Republicans will want to boost domestic spending commensurately.

    Fixed that for you.

  13. Great story. It seems to be a little to balanced on the blame……I mean I can’t detect which side you are on…..maybe that’s the problem

  14. Who comes up with all that stuff I wonder.

  15. The failure was in not creating a Super Duper Committee.

    1. Hey, there’s plenty of adjectives left. They can use up an entire election cycle with Mega Committee, Unparalleled Committee, Ultra Committee, Uber Committee, etc.

      1. And here I’m waiting for the “EXTRA BIG-ASS COMMITTEE!!!”

  16. “The recurrent fantasy that Congress can delegate difficult fiscal decisions to an autonomous body?”


  17. I hope the tea party gets into full gear and puts up a bunch more candidates next election, we need to get as many politicians replaced as possible. This not working and losing my house is really starting to suck!!

  18. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates. The usefulness and significance is overwhelming and has been invaluable to me!

  19. Why was the power of the power passed from a king to some Barons? Why not pass the power of the purse to taxpayers?

    What would the public goods allocation disparity be between A) 535 congresspeople spending other people’s money and B) millions and millions of taxpayers directly allocating their own taxes?

    What would the value be of forcing taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions?

  20. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, calculates that the gemstone jewelry cuts mean federal spending will rise by $1.65 trillion from 2012 through 2021, about 8 percent less than the currently projected increase of $1.8 trillion. That’s right: These “cuts” are not really cuts at all; they are modest reductions in the increases that Congress takes for granted. How pathetic is it that Congress sets the bar for fiscal responsibility so low and still can’t get over it?

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