Newly-elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., seems to be doing a good job putting things in order. Things on Capitol Hill seem calmer than they were a month ago. Congress is back to doing the people’s business.
So far, he’s getting high marks. A Rasmussen Reports survey released Tuesday showed his approval rating at 47%, yet all is not well. His “first day on the job” promise “to establish a bipartisan debt commission” to immediately begin work developing a plan to deal with the federal debt is troublesome.
Johnson’s heart is in the right place. As he said, “The consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable.” Unfortunately, he framed the commission’s mission in ways that are the functional equivalent of inviting a kit of foxes to visit the hen house unsupervised.
Congress long ago abandoned the idea of regular order when it spends money. The 1974 Budget Act’s requirements and rules are routinely ignored or waived. Programs that have not been reauthorized receive funding anyway through the assortment of appropriations bills and continuing resolutions that eventually become law.
When it comes down to it, the list of things done wrong regarding Congress’ exercise of its power of the purse is significantly longer than the list of things done right, a difference as dramatic as the one that exists between Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Chopin’s Minute Waltz.
It’s a big problem that needs solving but in the right way. Others have tried along the lines Johnson has proposed. Most recently, there was the much-anticipated but ultimately stillborn proposal a bipartisan commission co-chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming GOP Senator Alan Simpson produced.
The Simpson-Bowles’ recommendations failed because, like every other commission report on the spending crisis, its success was based on the underlying premise that revenue enhancements now in exchange for spending cuts later would solve the problem.
It’s a persuasive idea, something that even pro-growth tax cutters like Ronald Reagan fell for. Yet, as experience has taught us, no matter how many times the Republicans agree, the Democrats will never hold up their end of the bargain. The tax hikes come, the spending cuts go – straight out the window. As with Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football, the belief that kind of deal will hold is an example of how optimism too often bests experience on Capitol Hill.
If Speaker Johnson really wants to lead on this issue he must, in the parlance of the chamber over which he presides, revise and extend his remarks to make it clear the commission he has in mind will only propose ways to cut spending, restructure the debt, and reform the budget process so that thrifty-minded members of Congress has at least as many or better more systemic advantages in battles over spending as the more profligate members of the House and Senate already have.
Remember the Reagan rallying cry: The problem isn’t that the people are undertaxed; it’s that the government is too big, and it spends too much. If Johnson doesn’t sign on to that mantra, if he doesn’t take revenue enhancements and tax hikes and special fees off the table now, before the commission is formed, he’s better off dropping the idea altogether. If that means there won’t be a commission – or that its membership won’t be bipartisan – so be it. If he’s worried about what’s good for the country, he’ll modify his message. If he’s worried about himself, he should avoid giving the opposition a window through which Republicans can be pressured to vote for a tax increase as a way of showing they are serious about dealing with the national debt.
A former UPI senior political writer and U.S. News and World Report columnist, Peter Roff is a senior fellow at several public policy organizations including the Trans-Atlantic Leadership Network. Contact him at RoffColumns AT gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter and TruthSocial @TheRoffDraft.
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