President Obama wants Republicans to agree to tax rate increases and new stimulus spending now in return for entitlement and tax code reform in the future. Accepting anything resembling that bargain would be bad politics given the fiscal principles on which Republicans have stood for the last two years. It would also suggest that Republican members of Congress need a few lessons in the fundamentals of constitutional authority and popular sovereignty.
Agreements of the sort urged by the president are not uncommon. The context is usually something like this. There is a big problem — say, a burgeoning federal debt — that cannot be solved overnight. There is no action Congress can take today that will eliminate the national debt or ensure that Social Security and Medicare will be solvent 10 or 20 years from now. Problems that have developed over decades require some time to correct.
The constitutional reality is that Congress and the president will have to chip away at these big problems and hope that those who follow in the White House and Congress will do the same. There is no way of guaranteeing that future presidents and Congresses will not abandon measures implemented today. But unless responsible steps are taken now, we’ll have little hope of meeting these long-term challenges in the future.
Politics being what it is, though, the current president and Congress would much rather do the easy stuff now and leave the more painful actions to those who come later.
Republicans shouldn’t let that happen.
Aside from the obvious danger that the president will either go back on his word or fail to persuade congressional Democrats to implement what he has promised, there are constitutional reasons that such agreements are unenforceable and thus a sucker’s bargain.
First, despite the implications of President Obama’s “we can’t wait” approach to executive power, and despite the repeated claims by candidates Obama and Romney that if elected they would enact and repeal particular laws, the president lacks any such constitutional authority. The president can no more guarantee future legislative action than I can guarantee that Warren Buffett will write you into his will at some future date.
Second, the current Congress cannot bind or constrain a future Congress. So even if Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi join President Obama in promising to deliver future entitlement and tax code reform in return for current tax rate increases and new stimulus spending, their promises will have no legal effect. Even if those promises are written into a law enacted by Congress and signed by the president, they won’t bind a future Congress.