The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

Dec 2006 - Jan 2007 Issue

Democrats and a Balanced Budget

By on October 26, 2015 with 0 Comments

Will the new majority get it done?

by TIMOTHY J. PENNY

In 1992, President Bill Clinton campaigned on promises to increase federal domestic spending, provide middle class tax cuts, and still reduce the deficit by 50 percent in his first term. 

He arrived in Washington only to discover that, even with a “peace dividend” made possible by the end of the Cold War, he could not keep his domestic spending promises and also reduce the deficit – unless he reneged on his promise to cut taxes. The budget realities he faced once in office (huge and growing deficits) required a different approach than the rhetoric of his campaign. 

Like Clinton in 1992, congressional Democrats today face a similar dilemma. In short, Democrats must feel like the dog that finally caught the tire. After sweeping to victory in nearly every closely fought congressional race, they now have a majority in both congressional chambers. From the war in Iraq, to ethics, to deficits, the Democrats spent the election season criticizing Republican mismanagement of the people’s business – while seldom offering a coherent alternative of their own. Now they are in charge of Congress and must deliver. What will they do? What can Democrats agree upon? 

…Democrats spent the election season criticizing Republican mismanagement of the people’s business – while seldom offering a coherent alternative of their own. Now they are in charge of Congress and must deliver.

Thankfully, the new majority will be led by two experienced and respected Budget Committee chairmen, John Spratt (SC) in the House and Kent Conrad (ND) in the Senate, both of whom are serious about reducing deficits. Spratt has recently gone on record calling for a balanced budget within five years. To reach that goal, they might start by looking to the Blue Dog caucus – comprised of 44 moderate and fiscally conservative members (nine of whom were newly elected this fall). In the immediate aftermath of the election, a key Blue Dog had this to say: “We’re not going to be a rubber stamp for anyone. We’re going to help bring our party back to the middle. We have a lot to say about what passes or doesn’t pass when it reaches the floor.” 

And, the Blue Dogs do have a lot to say about how to handle the federal budget and reduce the deficit. Their prescription for fixing the budget morass created in recent years by Republicans is worth a serious look. Blue Dogs have proposed the following:

  • a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget;
  • restoration of “Pay-as-you-go” budget guidelines through 2010;
  • implementation of new rules requiring roll call votes for spending bills with more than $50 million in new spending;
  • establishment of strict rules on emergency spending, as well as establishing a “rainy day” fund for those funds;
  • subjecting any increase in the debt limit to a roll call vote;
  • implementing new rules requiring all Congressional earmarks to include publicly accessible justifications;
  • creating new guidelines requiring a three-day minimum for Members to review legislation before a scheduled vote; and,
  • enacting new guidelines requiring House committees to detail their oversight efforts in biannual reports. 

From the Blue Dog list, Democratic party leaders have only embraced the re-enactment of “Pay-as-you-go” budget rules. That would make imminent sense given the success of these rules in the decade of the 1990s when budget surpluses reappeared for the first time since 1969. Pay-go policies serve to hold the line on new entitlement spending and new tax cuts (requiring that any such measures be honestly offset with other cuts or revenue increases so as to result in no net increase in the deficit). Regrettably, Republicans allowed these Pay-go rules to lapse in 2002 – and large deficits have returned in the ensuing years. Restoration of Pay-go would hamper any proposed expansion of entitlement spending – and would make extension of tax cuts beyond their expiration date in 2010 more difficult to achieve. But, for the most part, Pay-go simply preserves the status quo. 

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Thankfully, the new majority will be led by two experienced and respected Budge Committee chairmen, John Spratt (SC) in the House and Kent Conrad (ND) in the Senate, both of whom are serious about reducing deficits.

Sadly, not even the Blue Dogs have proposed taking a serious look at reducing entitlement spending. Yet, with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation just a few short years away, the cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will soon  skyrocket. Medicare is already in fiscal straits and Social Security will be in a cash flow crunch by the year 2017 (according to the Government Accountability Office). Whether through a “blue ribbon” entitlement commission – or some other means – it would make sense for Democrats to deal with these issues now. Delaying action only makes the solutions more costly and painful. President Bush now seems willing to work with Democrats to create a truly bipartisan commission. Democrats would be wise to accept his offer – unless they want the next President (who they obviously hope will be a Democrat) to inherit an even greater budget challenge than Clinton faced in 1992. 

Restoring fiscal responsibility in Washington also makes the remaining items on the Blue Dog agenda critically important. If Democrats want to prove to skeptical voters that they can be careful with the public purse, they must act quickly to reverse the explosion in pork barrel spending that occurred while Republicans controlled Congress. They must once again assure that only true emergencies are funded in emergency spending legislation. 

With a Democratic party majority of less than twenty seats, clearly, the 44 member Blue Dog caucus could be the margin of victory on any budget measures brought before Congress. Rather than simply listening to the Blue Dog caucus, Democratic leaders should place the Blue Dog budget agenda at the top of this Congress’s “to do” list.  RF


Timothy J. Penny represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District from 1982 through 1994. While in Congress, he founded and co-chaired the Democratic Budget Group and drafted deficit-cutting initiatives. He is currently a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He is also a Board Member of the Concord Coalition.

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