THE HOUSE of Representatives plans today to take up a so-called budget enforcement measure that threatens to impose severe cuts on federal spending while leaving the door open to additional, unaffordable tax cuts. The legislation, the Spending Control Act of 2004, was in flux yesterday, but -- at least in its form as of last night -- it would clamp down too hard on spending. Moreover, even if the spending cuts were eased, it would impose a lopsided, ineffective and ultimately counterproductive version of budget discipline.
The proposal, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), would reinstate the pay-as-you-go requirements that helped reduce budget deficits during the 1990s, but -- unlike the earlier version of the pay-go rule -- would apply only to entitlement spending, not to tax cuts. Entitlement spending (on Medicare, veterans' benefits and the like) could be increased only if equivalent spending cuts were found; money saved, for example, by closing tax loopholes wouldn't count. Meanwhile, lawmakers would face no such constraint in enacting additional tax cuts.
Another looming problem is a cleverly crafted alternative that takes the worst of the underlying bill (the bogus pay-go provision) and combines it with spending cuts that may be more salable to the GOP caucus but are potentially even more harmful. The amendment, by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would impose draconian limits on spending for entitlement programs. He wisely exempts Social Security and Medicare but would place unrealistic ceilings on other entitlement spending and require automatic cuts in any year in which lawmakers failed to trim enough to fit within that cap. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Kirk cap would require entitlement cuts of $445 billion over the next 10 years -- almost one out of every seven dollars in the affected entitlement programs by 2014.
We'd be happy to see cuts in some of those programs, but are lawmakers more likely to trim farm subsidies or child nutrition programs? And while getting the deficit under control will require restraint on both spending and tax cuts, the Republican approach is one-sided. The poor will sacrifice, the wealthy get a pass.
In scheduling a vote on the budget measure last week, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told his colleagues that it "defines who we are and where we want to take this country." Indeed it does. That is why both the Nussle and Kirk proposals should be rejected.