What’s a budget gimmick? It’s a generic name for any kind of self-executing, automatic process that supposedly will achieve a predetermined budget goal if future Congresses fail to meet that goal. Sarah Babbage has an excellent rundown of the three possible budget gimmicks under consideration as part of any budget deal, but here’s what you need to know: Budget gimmicks don’t work.

Why not? Because they are attempts at the impossible: Budget gimmicks are attempts by the current Congress and the current president to tell future Congresses and future presidents what to do. And it’s simple: If the future politicians want to do what the past politicians wanted, they would do it; if not, they won’t. No amount of procedural trickery is going to successfully bind future politicians. When it comes down to it, Congress can always do whatever it wants. The granddaddy of budget gimmicks, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings procedure in the 1980s, was a failure, and so will be the new gimmicks, if they’re adopted.

It is possible that different budget procedures can have some effect on what Congress does; a tough PAYGO procedure is hardly foolproof, but it tends to reduce new unfunded spending. But pretending that you’re going to use a self-executing procedure in the future to make cuts you don’t want to make today is something else again.

Hmmm . . . I should be more specific, really. I said budget gimmicks don’t work; what I meant was that they don’t work if your goal is cutting the deficit. On the other hand, budget gimmicks can be quite effective if the goal is to look as if you’re doing something about the deficit without actually doing any of the unpopular work of actually cutting spending or raising taxes; that is, gimmicks can be an effective way of pretending to cut the deficit. Which works out just fine for most members of Congress — but why anyone who actually wants to reduce the deficit should support any of it is beyond me.