To brandish his reputation as a fiscal conservative, GOP Senate nominee Mark Kirk released a five-point platform to reduce federal spending. He should own up to his role in the growth of the nation's debt, instead.
"I'm a fiscal conservative."
Given how much he repeats it, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk should probably just tattoo that sentence to his forehead. With the economy still struggling, it's a good bet that Illinois' Republican U.S. Senate nominee is going to talk a lot about government spending throughout the next two months. At a press conference hosted by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Kirk outlined five "spending reforms" he'd fight for in Washington if he's elected to the upper chamber. Watch:
Let's analyze these proposals one by one, shall we?
The line-item veto
One major problem with pushing for executive line-item veto power -- which the Obama administration wants -- is that it's been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate could take up the legislation, as they attempted to do in 2006, but it would face an elaborate court fight.
On the merits, though, the line-item veto still has problems. There's no evidence, for example, that line-item veto powers actually reduce spending. Indeed, it's possible it could do the reverse. Here's conservative columnist George Will, writing in 2007:
And the line-item veto might result in increased spending. Legislators would have even less conscience about packing the budget with pork, because they could get credit for putting in what presidents would be responsible for taking out. Presidents, however, might use the pork for bargaining, saying to individual legislators: If you support me on this and that, I will not veto the bike path you named for your Aunt Emma.
It's undeniable that more transparency and oversight is needed in the congressional earmark system. But this familiar hobby-horse of Kirk's does not contribute significantly to the federal debt. Earmarks made up less than 1 percent of federal spending in 2008. Here's Mark Thoma's chart illustrating that point:
Require a super-majority to deficit spend
Because of the constant (and historically abnormal) use of the filibuster and other procedural tricks, the U.S. Senate basically has a built-in super-majority requirement nowadays. Just this past month, for example, Senate Democratic leaders were forced to gut a successful food stamp program to pay for unemployment benefits.
Kirk also gives no convincing justification for why deficit spending alone, which helped prevent a Great Depression these past two years, should not be subject to majority rule. If Republicans want to "protect our children" by limiting government outlays, they should win back a majority in Congress or convince enough Democrats their argument makes sense and do so.
Enact Senator Simon's balanced budget amendment
In 1995, Republicans passed a constitutional amendment requiring that the federal government could not spend more in any given year than its income. It was defeated by one vote in the Senate. It's a good thing it was.
Taking away the government's ability to pump up the economy when it's stagnating or in serious recession, which is caused by a failure of demand, would eliminate its key role as a "fiscal stabilizer." In economic downturns, revenues fall and demands for public services go up. With Kirk's amendment on the books, the federal government would be forced to raise taxes or cut spending to balance its books, both of which would likely deepen recessions. This is simple Keynesian economics. Only fringe economists hold the intellectual position for which Kirk is advocating.
One more point: Kirk's third bullet point would be invalidated if a balanced budget amendment was approved. So this plan really has four planks, not five.
Re-establish the Grace Commission with special procedures to implement approved spending cuts
President Reagan launched the Grace Commission in 1982 to ferret out waste and inefficiency in the federal government. Their report was presented two years later and Congress basically ignored its recommendations. Archpundit reviews some of the history here.
Much like the line-item veto, the "special procedures" Kirk wants to put in place would probably be ruled unconstitutional. And it's curious why a congressman would want to give away so much of Congress' ability to set budgets. Has Kirk no faith in the democratic process itself?
And what about those deficits?
After Kirk explained his platform, reporters peppered him with a series of questions. One asked the Republican to answer criticisms lobbed at him from Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias centering around the debt accumulated under the Bush administration. "I would definitely decry the budget deficits of previous administrations," he said. Watch it:
Actions speak louder than words. President Bush and Mark Kirk supported two huge tax cuts and two wars without generating any revenue to pay for them. Over the next decade, those decisions alone will account for almost $7 trillion in deficits. That figure dwarfs by any measure the stimulus spending initiated by the Obama administration:
Those tax cuts for the highest 2 percent of earners, by the way, greatly accelerated income inequality and would add $826 billion additional dollars to the deficit over the next decade if they are extended.
What's the lesson here? The Kirk campaign would rather toss around a bunch of reform gimmicks than focus the discussion on the congressman's record in office. That's because one would have to distort the meaning of fiscal conservative quite a lot for the Senate nominee to qualify.