In January, the Senate joined the House in passing "pay-as-you-go" rules to require Congress to pay for new discretionary spending. On Feb. 12, President Obama signed the bill. "Now Congress will have to pay for what it spends, just like everybody else," Obama crowed. Less than a month later, Obama and fellow Democrats are busily demonizing a lone senator for pushing Washington to spend responsibly. It seems this administration is all for fiscal restraint -- as long as you don't mean it.
The story began last week when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked Senate passage of a bill to extend one month unemployment and COBRA health insurance benefits, and other spending, because it did not comply with PAYGO. As the Baseball Hall-of-Famer explained, "When 100 senators are for a bill, and we can't find $10 billion to pay for it, there's something the matter, seriously the matter, with this body." For that, he is Satan.
On Sunday, The New York Times ran a story about the Bunning brouhaha without mentioning why Bunning was blocking the bill. A CNN television crawl warned: "Thousands hurt by one senator." Veep Joe Biden lamented the prospect of a single senator filibustering a measure, and wished, as Politico reported, only that the senator would have to explain to the families of the Americans who could lose their benefits "how they're going to get by."
It's a heartbreaking scenario -- but it can be avoided if Capitol Hill leaders either find the $10 billion in a government that spends $3.8 trillion annually or the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to the Senate floor.
A month ago, Democrats were suggesting the Repubs were phony tightwads for not joining them in support of PAYGO. It turns out, PAYGO is the phony. Two weeks after it became law, the Senate passed a $15 billion jobs bill exempt from PAYGO. Now Bunning is not budging. As spokesman Mike Reynard put it, "If everyone's serious about PAYGO, let's act like it."
I used to like the concept, and remember arguing with Brian Riedl of the libertarian- leaning Heritage Foundation. But he was right. As he said Monday, "PAYGO exists as a talking point in order to create the illusion of fiscal responsibility while they're ignoring it. It's designed for TV ads."
And: "The offsets are out there. Congress just has to make a difficult decision for once."
James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has a different take. The PAYGO rules, he noted, exempt emergency spending. "Right now, adding to the deficit in fact helps the economy, it doesn't hurt," Horney noted. The benefits extension "is temporary and deals with a short-term economic problem." To Horney, in exempting the bill to extend jobless benefits, PAYGO is working as it should.
Horney added, "I would have more sympathy for (Bunning) and others if they applied the same logic to new tax cuts or to extending expiring tax cuts like the estate tax."
Point taken, and it's a good one. But if supporting tax cuts years ago means a lawmaker cannot push for fiscal discipline today, then Washington will never grow up and, as Obama put it, "pay for what it spends."