Bipartisan Spending Bill is Still Light on Specifics

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“It feels a little lonely right now,” Sen. Claire McCaskill said Tuesday. Flanked by a trio of Republicans, the Missouri Democrat was on hand for a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday to unveil a new bill to rein in spending. If McCaskill was feeling isolated, it’s because of her partners on the bill, not because the measure itself is really that groundbreaking. Like many of its counterparts, the Commitment to American Prosperity (CAP) Act puts forth aggressive deficit-reduction goals without pinpointing how to meet them.

The measure would cap discretionary and mandatory spending at a declining level of GDP over the next 10 years, pushing spending levels down from the current level (24% of GDP) to 20.6%, the 40-year historical average, over the course of a decade. In essence, it would force a body that likes to talk about spending cuts to actually follow through. “It puts a straitjacket on Congress,” as Corker put it. If Congress manages to wriggle out of it, the bill would authorize the Office of Management and Budget to impose automatic, across-the-board cuts itself. Corker argued it imposed dramatic cost-cutting controls on a Congress that has a hard time with parsimony. “One of the things I find fascinating about this place is we never have a plan,” he said. “We never have any idea where we’re going.” If the CAP Act is adopted, they would.

Sort of. They’d have a benchmark, but not a blueprint for getting there. Unlike competing deficit-reduction plans, in the CAP Act “everything is on the table,” Corker said, including entitlements. But the bill says nothing about what should be cut and what shouldn’t. That may be because support for deficit-slashing may wane when people learn what programs could come under the knife in a plan that would pare an estimated $7.8 trillion off federal outlays. Paul Van de Water, of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, argues that it would be “virtually impossible to maintain federal spending at its average level for decades back to 1970 without making draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and an array of other vital federal activities.”

McCaskill, who deviated from her colleagues by pushing to eliminate earmarks and voting against omnibus spending bils, knew Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t be a fan of her proposal, and she spent time Tuesday casting the plan as perilous politics. She predicted that it would be spun by opponents as an attempt to snatch Social Security from seniors. “If this bill is distorted and twisted, it could cost me my senate seat, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay,” she said.

I’m not sure it’s as risky as she claims. McCaskill is a moderate Democrat in a state that has been trending Republican. She won a tight race in 2006, and already multiple challengers are lining up to take her on next year. It’s hard to see how bucking Reid to sign onto a bipartisan deficit-reduction measure — and trumpeting her willingness to risk her seat for a cause that’s highly popular (in theory) —  does her much harm with the independents who will tip her 2012 race. (Corker, it’s worth noting, is also up for re-election in 2012.) That’s particularly true because the CAP Act’s authors don’t tell any of those voters where they’d have to sacrifice. Nor, with Democrats unlikely to sign on, will they have to. Somber press conferences about the need to clamp down on Congressional profligacy and sacrifice for our grandchildren are actually fairly easy. Filling in the fine print is what’s hard. And in failing to do so, the authors are hardly alone.