In Defense of Caps, Triggers, and Other Gimmicks

by Michael J. New

Andrew McCarthy, Stanley Kurtz, and Michael Walsh make a number of good points in their thread on whether this Congress can bind later Congresses. They are right that the spending cuts, spending caps, and commission recommendations are not really binding. Congress can always loosen or eliminate the rules it places on itself. Furthermore, elected officials often propose institutional rule changes to avoid making politically difficult decisions about taxing and spending priorities.

That having been said, there are plenty of good arguments for having good institutional rules in place. In some cases, spending caps can reinforce an existing consensus to limit the growth of spending. In other cases well designed fiscal rules can change the incentives of voters and elected officials. For instance, the tight revenue limit included in Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) enjoyed some durability, because money spent over the limit would reduce the size of the annual taxpayer rebates. 

Of course, at the federal level designing effective institutional rules is difficult. Obviously there is no preexisting balanced-budget amendment. There is no initiative process and amending the constitution is quite difficult. However, good institutional rules can still change policy in a positive direction. Designing and enacting effective institutional rules, particularly as it applies to the budget process, is still a worthy goal for fiscal conservatives.

— Michael New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

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