Republicans pushing the "Cut, Cap and Balance" bill in Washington, D.C., must be betting that voters won't pop open the hood of this rushed and reckless legislation to peer at what's inside.
Those who do will quickly see this for what it is: a bill that dredges up an old idea with feel-good language -- a balanced budget amendment -- to cloak draconian spending cuts that would go beyond the radical budget surgery proposed earlier this year by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The amendment calls for unprecedented cuts that could threaten Social Security and Medicare and gut funding for education, transportation, public health and medical research. The measure also calls for a California-style legislative supermajority to raise taxes and close needless loopholes.
Republicans were expected to pass the mostly symbolic bill in the U.S. House on Tuesday night as part of the down-to-the-wire debt-ceiling negotiations. While the details were still being hammered out, voters need to understand that the measure's champions are not only reiterating their support for the highly unpopular Ryan plan, which called for Medicare vouchers, they're saying the Ryan plan did not cut deeply enough.
It's hard to see that at first glance. The Cut, Cap and Balance bill calls for following Ryan's budget prescription over the next 10 years -- gradually reducing caps on annual federal spending from 22.5 percent of economic output to 19.9 percent. Currently, federal spending hovers around an unhealthy 24 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
But the bill also endorses a balanced budget amendment that, if approved by the states, would cap annual spending at around 18 percent of GDP. This constitutional cap would trump the Ryan plan, which now wouldn't pass muster, or any other congressionally imposed caps. The cap is also substantially less than called for in other credible deficit plans. The Simpson-Bowles commission recommended a 21 percent GDP cap, for example.
Just for comparison, President Reagan's budgets didn't fall below 21 percent of GDP.
Certainly, an 18 percent cap would speed balancing of the nation's books, which has to be done. But it is the equivalent of a starvation diet when a healthier, comprehensive approach -- such as the "Gang of Six" plan that rallied markets on Tuesday -- would suffice. According to a Center for American Progress analysis, the 18 percent cap, if enacted, could require a 25 percent across-the-board cut to everything in the federal budget (including Social Security) in 2016. It's possible to protect some programs, but then other areas would take an even bigger hit.
A balanced budget amendment, even one better crafted, also doesn't do the hard work of deciding where the cuts would be made. That still falls to Congress. This week, some of the amendment's most vocal proponents ducked questions from Bloomberg reporters about how they'd reach the amendment's spending threshold.
Voters ought to see this charade for what it is: a way to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility without making the hard choices it involves. Or, telling the hard truth: that we need to expect less and pay more.
Even if it passes the U.S. House, the bill won't go anywhere in the Democratically controlled Senate and faces a veto anyway. This is just a face-saving measure that Republicans believe will give them an edge in 2012 elections.
Congress shouldn't have to mess with the U.S. Constitution to do its job and balance the budget. Those touting this measure in 2012 should have to explain why it's needed and where, exactly, they'd cut to meet the 18 percent cap.