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Passing the Purse

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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 supercommittee'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 supercommittee 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 gross domestic product. 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.

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