In a Bind

by Ramesh Ponnuru

One thing we’re hearing a lot from Boehner-plan skeptics today is the refrain that “one Congress can’t bind another”: It’s better to get spending cuts front-loaded, because future Congresses can always exceed any caps. That’s true. But of course by the same token future Congress can always reverse today’s spending cuts in full. The question is what actions can be taken now to influence future spending. Front-loaded cuts would help. But so would legally enforceable spending caps of the sort found in the Boehner plan. Yes, future Congresses can waive them. But so long as supporters of the caps hold the House, the Senate, or the presidency they can maintain them. Without caps written in law, it would be easier for the appropriations bills to exceed them without there ever being a single vote on the total.

If the spending-restraint coalition cannot maintain sufficient political strength to hold one or more of these veto points in the future, no other legislation will save the cause. An enforceable constitutional amendment might be able to keep spending down even if conservatives are routed politically, but no such amendment seems to be on offer, let alone to have any prospect of passage and ratification.