In his remarks on Friday, President Obama said he would support a trigger if it was done in “a smart and balanced way.” The implication was that it had to include tax increases as well as spending cuts, as a trigger with just spending cuts wouldn’t force Republicans to negotiate in good faith. The trigger in this deal does not include tax increases.
What it includes instead are massive cuts to the defense budget. If Congress doesn’t pass a second round of deficit reduction, the trigger cuts $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Fully half of that comes from defense spending. And note that I didn’t say “security spending.” The Pentagon takes the full hit if the trigger goes off.
The other half of the trigger comes from domestic spending. But Social Security, Medicaid and a few other programs for the poor are exempted. So the trigger is effectively treating defense spending like it comprises more than half of all federal spending. If it goes off, the cuts to that sector will be tremendous — particularly given that they will come on top of the initial round of cuts. Whether you think the trigger will work depends on whether you think the GOP would permit that level of cuts to defense.
If the trigger “works,” of course, it’s never used. Instead, the bipartisan committee produces $1.5 trillion (or more) in deficit reduction, Congress passes their plan and the president signs it. But why should we believe that will happen? If Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on major deficit reduction this year, why is it going to be any easier in an election year?
The answer is supposed to be the trigger. Those cuts are meant to be so brutal that neither party will risk refusing a deal. But a deal means taxes, or at least is supposed to mean taxes. And Speaker John Boehner is already promising that taxes are off the table.
The biggest problem here is that Congress is completely incapable of binding itself over time. And everyone knows it. There’s a name for the problem — legislative entrenchment — and a line of Supreme Court cases supporting it. And there’s Blackstone before that. (More here, if you want. But the headline is misleading, as the only significant loophole to legislative entrenchment is that one Congress can compel another to pay off its debts — not, shall we say, helpful in this situation.)
What one Congress enacts, another Congress can repeal. Always. This problem is often brushed aside, but it makes a lot of policy proposals ultimately silly the longer you look at them. Al Gore’s Social Security lockbox is the most infamous example, but unless I’m missing something really big, this one bids fair to surpass it.
My hypothesis: It fools the ordinary folk. Not because it’s convincing. But because it has to.