Now that the Bush White House has belatedly discovered the threat of deficits, it has also belatedly discovered the virtues of congressional spending caps.
In his 2005 budget, President Bush proposes that Congress re-enact a series of spending limitations that governed congressional budgeting for 16 years.
In 1986, alarmed by rising red ink, Congress enacted the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, better known as Gramm-Rudman after two of its three principal sponsors. The deficit was $221 billion.
The deficits fell but had again risen to $221 billion in 1990 when Congress enacted the Budget Enforcement Act. The deficit peaked at $290 billion in 1992 under Bush senior (a record until 2003 under the current Bush) and then began to fall.
With a balanced budget in sight, Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 when the deficit was about $22 billion. A fortuitous combination of good intentions and legislative gridlock on the part of President Clinton and a Republican Congress put the budget into the black for four straight years. In fiscal 2001 when Bush took office, there was a $127 billion surplus.
These deficit reduction measures relied generally on pay-as-you-go provisions, known in legislative parlance as PAYGO, that roughly required that any new spending or tax cuts be balanced by offsetting spending cuts or tax increases.
The budget act expired in 2002 without a peep of protest from the White House, perhaps because the president couldn't have gotten his big spending increases and sweeping tax cuts through with PAYGO in place.
The deficit this fiscal year is estimated at $521 billion, and now the Bush White House is proposing that Congress enact new spending caps and offset provisions, including extending PAYGO to certain mandatory spending. He would, however, exempt tax cuts from any offsetting requirements.
As outlined in the budget, Bush's spending caps are probably stricter and more onerous than Congress will tolerate. Some estimates say the caps would require Congress to cut $41 billion over five years in non-defense, non-homeland security spending from Bush's own 2005 budget.
But some form of spending caps and offsets, including for tax cuts, should be passed. Congress and the Bush administration should never have allowed them to expire in the first place.