Over the last three and a half decades Congress has periodically owned up to the Budget Act’s failure by writing new laws to correct the flaws in the old one. There was the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985. This statute essentially threatened the legislative branch with automatic spending cuts and tax increases if it was unable to keep its fiscal house in order. The discipline proved too draconian for both Republicans and Democrats, however, and by 1990 a new Budget Enforcement Act departed from the hard deficit targets of Gramm-Rudman in favor of the kinder and gentler pay-as-you-go provisions which mandated that every federal dollar spent had to be met with a commensurate cut in discretionary or entitlement accounts … or a tax increase. How do you think that played out?
And then in 1996, a Democrat president named Bill Clinton asked a Republican Congress to give him a line-item veto to restore to his office the impoundment authority lost in 1974. And they did, and we came full circle until 1998, when the Supreme Court declared the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 unconstitutional.
So now what? More legislative vehicles substituting elaborate process reforms in the future for good old-fashioned fiscal discipline in the present? When Congress and the White House temporarily got their act together in the mid ‘90s and produced budgets that actually generated surpluses, as well-deserved as that accomplishment was it probably created a false confidence in both the Republican and Democrat camps. Budget deficits were deemed to be cyclical problems that could be fixed through cunning compromises and then promptly forgotten. Now our dilemma is structural, and any solution bringing us to fiscal security as a nation will require the same kind of constant vigilance we demand for our national security. In other words, this Congress and this White House and all subsequent Congresses and presidents will need to regularly reduce and restructure our tax and spending policies over many years to come. And we on the sidelines need to insist on annual budgets with real and measurable cuts and shrinking baselines.
I eventually learned how to apply the “less is more” axiom to my acting career. Our senators and members of Congress need to learn how to apply it to their roles as policymakers. If they do not they will probably learn too late that the converse is also true: when it comes to government, more will ultimately mean a lot less.