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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cut, Cap, Balance: Zero To Do With Deficits

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on June 22, 2011.
So in addition to the ancient no-tax-increase pledge administered to legions of Republicans by Grover Norquist, and the new anti-choice pledge being pushed by the Susan B. Anthony List, there’s yet another, more immediately significant pledge out there that would guarantee the debt limit confrontation on tap soon would go nuclear. It’s the “cut, cap, balance” pledge endorsed by a fairly wide array of conservative groups, and it goes like this:

I pledge to urge my Senators and Member of the House of Representatives to oppose any debt limit increase unless all three of the following conditions have been met:
Cut – Substantial cuts in spending that will reduce the deficit next year and thereafter.
Cap – Enforceable spending caps that will put federal spending on a path to a balanced budget.
Balance – Congressional passage of a Balancoed Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.

What’s interesting about this “pledge” is that action to reduce budget deficits is strictly subordinated to the most central task of permanently limiting government in a way that would virtually require destruction of the New Deal and Great Society legacy. The “enforceable spending caps,” as explained in a Wall Street Journal column penned by the leaders of three of the groups endorsing this “pledge,” don’t involve any sort of “freeze” or “slowdown,” but instead a absolute limitation based on a percentage of GDP that has only been achieved at the peak of big economic booms (e.g., the end of the Clinton administration) or prior to the enactment of the modern social safety net (the 1950s and 1960s). The version of the balanced budget amendment that represent the “balance” portion of the pledge would also include a GDP limit, along with a super-majority requirement for tax increases that makes it clear deficit reduction is not the object of this exercise.
All of this serves to demonstrate, if the thundering support of conservatives for the Ryan budget wasn’t sufficient evidence, that the primary objective of the conservative movement on the fiscal front is the destruction of safety net programs that are too popular to assault frontally. Combined with their invariable, unchanging agenda of still more high-end tax cuts, the drive for spending limitations linked to GDP is a formula for perpetual budget deficits to be perpetually used to drive down government involvement in national life to levels not seen since the 1920s. And that, folks, is the whole idea.

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