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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Balanced-Budget Fever

Via Mori Dinauer at TAPPED, we learn that MN Governor Tim Pawlenty, supposedly a voice of moderation in the national Republican ranks, has joined House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence in calling support for a constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment critical to the revival of the GOP.
This is just bizarre.
Sure, I understand the powerful psychological necessity for the belief among conservatives that “excessive spending” was responsible for the entire disaster of the Bush Era of Republicanism. And yes, the BBA, now as in the past, is an “idea” with a tiresome and deeply dishonest utility as a way to trumpet one’s lust for fiscal discipline without the difficult and politically perilous task of identifying particular spending cuts.
But still, given the dire fiscal condition of the federal government even before the financial crisis and the onset of a deep recession, this is perhaps the worst time in national history to embrace a constitutional BBA. And that’s why virtually all economists, and such famously fiscal-disciplinary political forces as the Blue Dogs, are urging some serious deficit spending right now to avoid complete economic catastrophe. Yet Pence and Pawlenty seem well on their way to making support for a BBA yet another conservative litmus test for Republican politicians.
Pawlenty’s take on this subject is really deep: a BBA is like “cutting up the credit cards” as a way-station to eliminating debt. Emplanted in this metaphor is the belief that the federal government in seeking to avoid or mitigate the worst recession since the Great Depression, is like a consumer who just can’t stop splurging at Best Buy.
On the positive side, perhaps this sudden outbreak of GOP balanced-budget fever means that conservatives have finally abandoned their previous Big Thought on federal spending: the “Starve the Beast” theory that perpetual tax cuts would, by creating unsustainable deficits, automatically force future spending reductions, thus relieving conservatives of the necessity of identifying them. This is what I’ve called the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe.
But given the zero odds that a BBA would ever be enacted, along with the undiminished ardor of Republicans for new tax cuts as the eternal solution to every economic problem, maybe this is a distinction without a difference. Whether they are “starving the beast” or “cutting up the credit cards,” some of today’s “reviving” Republicans seem to be living in a world where basic arithmetic and logic have been forgotten.

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