Opinion

A bone to pick with Bartlett on federal spending

Photo of Alan Reynolds and Benjamin Zycher
Alan Reynolds and Benjamin Zycher
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      Alan Reynolds and Benjamin Zycher

      Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Benjamin Zycher is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence recently called for a constitutional amendment limiting federal spending “to one-fifth of the economy.” Bruce Bartlett, a former official in the George H.W. Bush administration, promptly denounced the idea as “dopey,” one “terrible… on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin to dissect it….”

Now, the Constitution is intended to constrain majorities generally, and the federal government in particular. Why? Because politicians have shorter time horizons than taxpayers, and therefore incentives to spend and tax at levels higher than those preferred by those they purportedly represent. That problem is compounded by that political clout of concentrated interests.

Given the government’s strong incentives to spend too much and weak incentives to use resources productively, and given the vital role of the Constitution as a check on federal power, the proposed Constitutional limit on spending is scarcely something to dismiss as “dopey.” Moreover, unlike several alternative “spending limit” proposals (such as linking spending to inflation and population growth), a spending constraint linked to the size of the economy would have the supreme virtue of forcing Congress to consider the impacts of legislation on economic growth.

  • Pingback: Back and Forth on the Spending Limit Amendment — By: NRO Staff | Blogging Elite Chat

  • paco

    To put it politely, Bruce Bartlett is a political prostitute (or is that redundant?). He has this love affair with the current tax system — probably because he makes his living from its complexities.

    His rants against various tax reforms expose him as the waterboy he is for those whose interests lie in maintaining the current broken system. I’m not wild about this proposal because it does nothing to address the current system’s inefficiency and complexity. It does attempt to address federal spending, which is a good thing, and the authors easily dispatch Bartlett’s irrational and irrelevant objections.

    Of course, a much better solution is the FairTax. But rather than passing the FairTax and tying its effective date to repeal of the 16th amendment, repeal the 16th amendment first. As passage of the repeal becomes imminent, the Feds will have no choice but to deal with the tax system and the FairTax is the obvious (and best) response.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Cornelius/500046320 Mark Cornelius

    This is a horrible idea. Thereafter, the federal government would have to perpetually know what GDP (or whatever measure they chose) as a measure of the economy, which means spending more than the federal government should.