When Speaker Nancy Pelosi took charge of the House in January, she pledged that Democrats would fight deficit spending and "restore pay-as-you-go [budget] discipline." Amid much fanfare, the new Democratic House passed a "pay-as-you-go" budgeting rule that required Congress to offset any spending increases or tax cuts. On Dec. 19, "pay-go" bit the dust.
On that day, the House passed a bill to protect more than 20 million American households from an increase in the alternative minimum tax -- without offsetting the $50 billion in lost revenue as pay-go promised. The 352-64 House vote followed an 88-5 Senate vote to do the same.
In less than one year, congressional Democrats had abandoned their key to fiscal responsibility -- even with the 2008 election looming, which should make them want to appear effective. And it should be noted that the pay-go rule only survived 11 months because legislators employed budgeting gimmicks -- shifting payments from one year to the next, underestimating the cost of programs or paying less for services -- to prop up the pay-go charade.
"I don't think it's dead," Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly told me. "It's premature to say so. The speaker is certainly committed to it. The blue dogs [fiscally conservative Democrats] are. I think that we're going to do everything we can to force it on other bills."
Daly noted that House Dems twice passed an AMT-reform bill that met the pay-go rules, but the Senate wouldn't pass them. So House Democrats -- these are my words -- were forced to cave rather than allow a tax increase on the middle-middle and upper-middle class.
The Democrats' failure here is not cause for glee. Sure, there is small satisfaction in watching the party of big spending revealed for what it is. Yet House Democratic staffers can point to new spending bills that never made it to a floor vote because they would have had to find a way to pay for the new programs. The House Budget Committee cites 360 bills passed by the House that complied with pay-go.
Democrats believe that they have made sacrifices in their aim for fiscal responsibility -- and at least they're trying. But they can't climb that hill. Taxpayers for Common Sense found more than $15 billion in earmarks -- pet projects inserted by lawmakers -- in the last two spending bills passed by Congress. The urge to spend trumps any notions of economy.
Besides, it's not as if the Republicans were role models when they sent big-spending bills, like their pork-rich 2002 farm bill, to President Bush for his all-too-ready signature.