As is pretty common these days, conservatives are ticked off big time. The cause is the topline agreement on spending forged between House Speaker Johnson and Senate Leader Schumer, a deal apparently now on life support. Despite a minuscule majority, conservatives say they want even lower spending, preferably leading soon to a balanced budget or even a surplus. That’s what they say, but do they all mean it? Count me doubtful.
The Johnson-Schumer deal leaves non-defense appropriations essentially flat year-over-year while defense spending rises about 3%. After inflation, defense spending will fall 2% to 3% in ‘real’ terms, which sounds like a modest win for conservatives, but then why did Schumer say, “It’s a good deal for Democrats and the country”? Probably because spending has already soared so far in recent years that a pause is a painless price to pay to stop this year’s budget merry-go-round. That would also explain why conservatives are still mad.
Republicans using classic language about balanced budgets, paying the bills, etc is music to many ears. Yet, one wonders, if given the chance, would these same Republicans walk the walk or is it all convenient talk as they can’t really make it happen? Will they still be up in arms if Donald Trump wins a second term in November and they’re in the majority?
The Congressional Budget Office projected last May that the 2024 budget deficit would be north of $1.6 trillion. One suspects all the emergency spending coming down the pike will push the final figure much closer to $2 trillion, but for argument’s sake, let’s stick with $1.6 trillion, which is bad enough.
The question before the court is what the conservative fiscal hawks would do to achieve a balanced budget wiping out the whole $1.6 trillion? Surely, they don’t want to raise taxes, so they would basically have to cut spending — defense, Social Security, Medicare, everything — by about 28%. That’s a tall order, even for a pundit.
Balancing the budget over some period can soften the blow, but the usual timeframe is 10 years with very little pain upfront and all the hard decisions left for the future. From Gramm-Rudman-Hollings to today, such approaches never reach the promised land. Recessions and emergencies intervene. Future congresses push the hard decisions into never-never land.
To be credible, fiscal hawks need to establish their bona fides. Impassioned floor speeches don’t cut it, but there’s a problem. Even if a courageous member had a detailed plan getting to balance swiftly, he or she would be crazy to publish the plan. The criticisms would be withering.
So, how do we know which Members are really doves with a hawk’s plumage glued in place and which are true hawks dedicated to fiscal discipline? Establish the True Hawk Caucus.
To gain entry, a member must submit a detailed plan to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for scoring. The Member may but need not make the plan public, but it must by CBO scoring achieve balance within four years, with at least a fourth of the deficit reduction occurring in the first year.
The CBO would report back whether the plan meets the test. If it does, then the Member can join the Caucus. Any True Hawk Caucus member would then speak with credibility when complaining about budget deficits and rising government debt. Their floor speeches might henceforth be called screeches.
And what of members making fiscal hawk noises but who aren’t members of the True Hawk Caucus? Well, everyone including their constituents would know what they really are.
JD Foster is the former chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget and former chief economist and senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He now resides in relative freedom in the hills of Idaho.
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