Dealing with Budget Deals

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Ezra Klein responded earlier this week to my article on Grover Norquist, disputing Norquist’s argument that deals that include spending cuts and tax increases should not be made because the spending cuts disappear. Quoting Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute, he notes that the Social Security deal of 1983 did deliver on its spending cuts.

Ryan Ellis, director of tax policy at Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, e-mailed me this response: “Ezra Klein makes no distinction between vague and ultimately unenforceable discretionary spending cuts on the one hand, and a defined Social Security benefit formula change on the other. The latter is far, far easier to see through. The former has been tried — and failed — at least twice (1982 and 1990). Klein’s conclusion should really be that if you want the most likely to happen spending cuts, look to the growth of entitlement programs. Discretionary is 13 gobs of Jello sticking to a wall, repeated every year.”

I think Ellis is quite right to say that entitlement formula changes that reduce benefits are more likely to stick than discretionary spending cuts. (Think about it this way: Because of the way Congress does appropriations, to enforce a discretionary cut Republicans might very well need to block all funding for several departments of government — which is very hard to do politically for any length of time. To keep an entitlement formula change in the law, Republicans would just have to hold tough and decline to reverse that change in the House, the Senate, or the White House.) But Ellis’s point means that if the right kind of grand bargain came along — one that involved the right kind of changes to the entitlement laws — one of Norquist’s main arguments for opposing all tax-increasing deals might not apply.

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