Notes From Babel

Krauthammer on Obama’s, Shall We Call Them, Subtleties

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This point, I thought, was too good to miss:

“I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future,” he solemnly pledged. “I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future. Period.”

Wonderful. The president seems serious, veto-ready, determined to hold the line. Until, notes Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, you get to Obama’s very next sentence: “And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.”

This apparent strengthening of the pledge brilliantly and deceptively undermines it. What Obama suggests is that his plan will require mandatory spending cuts if the current rosy projections prove false. But there’s absolutely nothing automatic about such cuts. Every Congress is sovereign. Nothing enacted today will force a future Congress or a future president to make any cuts in any spending, mandatory or not.

Just look at the supposedly automatic Medicare cuts contained in the Sustainable Growth Rate formula enacted to constrain out-of-control Medicare spending. Every year since 2003, Congress has waived the cuts.

Mankiw puts the Obama bait-and-switch in plain language. “Translation: I promise to fix the problem. And if I do not fix the problem now, I will fix it later, or some future president will, after I am long gone. I promise he will. Absolutely, positively, I am committed to that future president fixing the problem. You can count on it. Would I lie to you?”

This is an excellent point that illustrates how a politicians will use legal and theoretical concepts, and their constituencies’ lack of understanding of them, to promote their agendas.  While legislative bodies are powerful, there are limits to the power of the laws they enact.  Specifically, a sitting legislative body cannot bind a future duly-elected legislative body to pass more legislation in furtherance of the laws it plans to enact today.  As Krauthammer says, one sovereign has no power to bind another sovereign.

But the point is even more dramatic than that.  One sovereign cannot even bind itself: A law passed today cannot bind even that same Congress to pass another law tomorrow.  Every time a legislative body sits, it begins with a blank slate.  It is entitled to be utterly schizophrenic and pass laws entirely at odds with what it passed a moment before.

So when a politician says he can prove he is “serious” because of what eventual laws a piece of legislation will require in the future, don’t you believe it.


Written by Tim Kowal

September 19, 2009 at 10:48 am

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