House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer gave a speech on fiscal responsibility at the Brookings Institution today. He reaffirmed his strong faith in PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) budget rules as “so valuable” to the cause–although he acknowledged the large exemptions for current policy and at the same time brushed that qualification aside a little too easily (for my tastes).
But my favorite part was when he talked about how the politically easy choices are the economically devastating ones:
The most important lesson we can draw from the years of recklessness is this: when it comes to budgeting, what is politically easy is often fiscally deadly. It is easier to pay for tax cuts with borrowed money than with lower spending; easier to hide the true costs of war than to lay those costs before the people; easier to promise special cost-of-living adjustments than explain why an increase is not justified under the formula in law; easier to promise 95% of Americans that we won’t consider raising their taxes than to ask all Americans to contribute for the common good. Those kinds of easy choices are so often selfish choices—because they leave the chore of cleaning up to someone else. Easy choices may be popular—but the popularity is bought on credit.
Washington’s behavior will only change when the incentives change: when voters demand more responsibility, and when the political price for easy choices rises sharply. As I said, I’m hopeful that just that is happening. But the public has a responsibility, too: to educate itself about the sources of the deficit and the range of realistic solutions—not to demand that government continue to escalate entitlement payments and lower the deficit at the same time.
We can’t meet this challenge unless the public is ready to confront tough choices, and unless leaders in both parties are ready to be honest about tough choices. When deficit solutions meet resistance, which they will, and when they are painful, which they will be, it’s our job to explain why they are also correct—and essential.
“Steadfast Steny” can talk like this without being a hypocrite, as he’s taken a lot of courageous positions and votes, even in his role as Majority Leader where he’s supposed to be worried about the politics.
UPDATE Tuesday morning: The NYTimes’ Jackie Calmes points out that Steny bravely “challenged the sacred cows in his own party” by suggesting some fairly specific options to damp down spending on Social Security and Medicare. My observation is that for most in Steny’s “own party”–including the President himself–the (Bush) tax cuts for that very-broadly-defined middle class of households with incomes under $250,000 have (bizarrely) become another “sacred cow” of theirs (the Democratic Party). And that’s the problem. How can the Democrats work in a bipartisan manner with Republicans if what they would otherwise negotiate on–in terms of “I’ll give up this (entitlement spending) if you give up that (tax cuts)”–is not really bargaining for anything they really want?