Reading Between the Rescission Lines

The White House proposal to give presidents new power to cut spending got plenty of media attention. But despite all the stories about the plan, and the requisite skepticism about its prospects, there’s not much to help readers figure out better ways to tackle the deficit.

That’s too bad. It’s not like there aren’t enough signs that readers—and voters—are paying attention to government spending.

The Washington Post captured the mood well on Monday, pointing to an expected showdown later in the week over usually routine spending bills that may cause headaches for Democratic leaders.

[T]hey are facing stiff resistance in both chambers of Congress, not only from Republicans but also within their own ranks. With midterm elections looming and Republicans blaming Democrats for a national debt bloated by the downturn and its aftermath, many lawmakers are unwilling to sign off on more spending.

The Journal’s lede on the White House plan doesn’t seem to notice the current environment:

The White House proposed a new tool Monday for trimming federal spending that would force Congress to vote yes or no on a package of cuts.

The plan would let the president comb through spending bills he has already signed into law, pick out items he deems wasteful, bundle them into a package and send it to Congress where lawmakers could vote “up or down” on the entire package—with no amendments.

The New York Times does better to give the move a bit more context:

President Obama on Monday became the latest White House resident to ask Congress for greater authority to cut specific items from spending bills, but even heightened concern about federal deficits may not be enough to overcome lawmakers’ traditional resistance to sharing more of their constitutional power of the purse.

The Times points to the politics of the moment, and makes clear that the White House is trying to tap into that sentiment.

Despite hostility in Congress, especially among Democrats, Mr. Orszag predicted that the proposal would get “an embrace from those who are most concerned about eliminating unnecessary spending” because “the fiscal context has changed” and “deficits have become a growing concern.”

The Journal also gets around to the political context, noting that, “As voters are increasingly anxious about the widening federal deficit, the proposal is aimed at demonstrating the White House is serious about controlling spending.”

The WSJ casts the president as “making some common cause with Republicans, and even with the tea-party activists, who are focused on reducing the deficit and scaling back government.” Its story then gives House Republican Whip Eric Cantor a chance to wag his finger and remind readers—and voters—that the GOP has been working on spending cuts for weeks.

But both takes end up in the same place, warning readers that the prospects of the proposal becoming law are uncertain at best, and the sums that could be tackled under it are just a fraction of the big budget picture.

That’s all good. But if rescission is mostly about political gamesmanship and very little about tackling the deficit, the papers should be clearer about that. And if it is a useful tool readers should know that and what effect it might have.

The Reuters story doesn’t help much by focusing on procedural politics.

Lawmakers who control spending are likely to bristle at the proposal as they have fiercely fought off previous presidential attempts to challenge their authority.

Ahh, gotta love a good fight about the three branches of government.

There’s also this odd bit from James Horney of the usually wise Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“I think it is probably better for the Congress not to give more influence over these matters to the president,” he said.

You mean, better for a Congress intent on protecting its turf not to cede any power? Maybe. But is that the goal of the exercise? That’s not much help for a reader who wants to know what’s better for controlling government spending.

Bloomberg was ambitious in its take on the story, touching on all sorts of elements that the others left aside—and leaving readers to muddle through a lot of confusing assertions. Here’s one:

“If President Obama is truly committed to fiscal responsibility, he will use the authority he already has under the law to force Congress to vote immediately on spending cuts,” Boehner said in a statement, referring to a section of the 1974 Budget Act that compels such votes.

Is that true? Bloomberg doesn’t even try to answer the question. Luckily, for the truly interested, the budget brains at Capital Gains and Games have a fascinating back and forth about the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and what it does and doesn’t permit.

Stan Collender seems to make the most important point for today’s debate: Under current law, if Congress takes no action on a rescission proposed by the president, the spending cuts are considered to be disapproved—and the money is supposed to be spent. Under the Obama proposal, if Congress doesn’t act within the required time, the proposed rescission would be considered to be approved—and the money would not be spent.

Sure, that may be deeper than most readers want to go. But there ought to be some middle ground, between lessons in legislative history and political jabs over whether the proposal has a chance of passing—or working.

As I’ve said before, our political leaders aren’t out there very much, explaining the real spending tradeoffs the country faces. And the press could be asking a lot more about those choices.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at