NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru: The Spending Pledge

Over at The Corner, National Review senior editor, Ramesh Ponnuru, offers his thoughts on my editorial, “Grover’s Missing Piece.” Ponnuru contends that “while I wish it could be done, I don’t think it’s possible to pledge our way to lower spending.”

Naturally, we at CRS take a different view, and I offer my reply in the comments to his post. You may also read my response and Ponnuru’s commentary below the fold:

Response:

I appreciate that Ramesh is with us in spirit, but I question his assertion that the pledge model cannot be applied to spending reduction.

While it’s accurate to say that “spending rises all the time,” the same is also true of revenue. The taxpayer-protection pledge doesn’t actually advocate for tax cuts; rather, it only attempts to prevent *new* taxes. Saying Reject the Debt won’t address automatic spending increases caused by ongoing demographic changes is like faulting Grover for failing to cap revenue increases caused by inflation.

As for the argument that not raising the debt ceiling would halt the providing of essential services, this is simply not true. When indebted individuals and families can no longer get their credit lines extended, they do not stop eating. Instead, they prioritize their spending based on the income they have, and begin to assess what parts of their consumption need to be curtailed to live within their means.

If elected officials were serious about cutting spending, then capping the debt ceiling and curtailing new borrowing presents a straightforward way to force them to take stock of what spending is truly essential. But of course, we wouldn’t have our current debt problem if a majority of elected officials were committed to cutting spending in reality.

I should also add that our mutual goal, presumably, is not just to reduce taxes or spending, but rather to restrain the federal government so that it generally does not spend more than it takes in. As I argue in my piece, that goal will never be achieved if we focus only on the tax side of the equation.

Ramesh Ponnuru:

I’ve long wondered whether it is possible to create an anti-spending pledge as effective as the famous anti-tax pledge. Jonathan Bydlak writes about an effort to do that on the home page today. I’m with him in spirit, but I don’t think the pledge would work very well. It generally requires an affirmative vote of Congress for taxes to rise, making accountability easy. (The fact that this condition doesn’t apply right now, of course, is causing anti-taxers all sorts of problems.) Yet spending rises automatically all the time with no affirmative vote, because of entitlements–and the anti-spending pledge does not account for this fact.

Also, refusing to raise taxes generally does not keep the government from sending out Social Security checks, maintaining the military, and doing other things the vast majority of people want it to do. Holding the line on appropriations bills, as the pledge demands, can lead to partial government shutdowns; so can refusing to raise the debt limit, as the pledge also demands.

So while I wish it could be done, I don’t think it’s possible to pledge our way to lower spending.