Ornstein’s Awards Are Nothing to Brag About

Posted March 29, 2011 at 7:05pm

Today is Awards Day. Our first award is for the Public Official Who Has Most Blatantly Violated His or Her Oath of Office. The clear winner: Donald McGahn, the Federal Election Commission member who recently told a symposium at the University of Virginia Law School, “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it.”

This astonishing revelation was accompanied by a disclaimer, that McGahn was actually enforcing the law as it has been shaped by the Supreme Court. But McGahn has refused to enforce the parts of the law that the court has not reversed or changed, making his own judgments about what he wants the court to do or thinks it might do at some point down the road. He has led his fellow Republican commissioners into an approach that has them united in refusing to enforce any actions, even when strongly supported by the technical staff and even when the violations of the law are clear — an obvious attempt to hamstring the agency with gridlock and send the signal to everybody that there will be no regulations and no enforcement of the law. This is simply unconscionable. Congratulations on your richly deserved award, Don.

The second award is for the Most Stupid and Irresponsible Comments by a Putative Presidential Candidate so far this cycle. This was a tough one for the judges because there has been so much competition. Sorry, Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee, you came very close. But the winner is Donald Trump, who has become a newly minted leader of the birther movement, suggesting deep suspicion because no one seems to remember growing up with President Barack Obama in Hawaii and now attacking the integrity and credibility of Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), who said he remembers Obama’s birth.

Of course, the facts are that there are lots of people who remember Obama growing up and lots of pictures of him as a youngster in Hawaii. And Abercrombie is well-known for his close friendship with Obama’s mother going back way before her marriage or the birth of her first child. And there are the two contemporaneous birth announcements in the Honolulu papers. So to believe the birther story is to believe that there was a vast conspiracy 49 years ago, involving two newspapers and dozens or hundreds of others, who smuggled an infant from Kenya via Indonesia into Hawaii, where he could be nurtured and cultivated for decades as a quasi-Manchurian Candidate, groomed to become president so he could undermine America from within.

Maybe Trump is nutso enough to believe this. Or maybe he is just cynically exploiting the issue to cultivate a sizable portion of the conservative base — operative Roger Stone called it “brilliant,” which also tells us something. The problem is that to exploit the birther charge by hyping it undermines the very legitimacy of the president, which is both dangerous and wrong-headed. It is a bit shaky to label Trump as a presidential candidate, rather than a simple shameless self-promoter. But he is close enough to the real thing to capture the award.

Now for the big award, the equivalent of Best Picture: Most Irresponsible Legislative Proposal of the Year. Here the clear winner is the balanced budget constitutional amendment, which has been endorsed by all 47 Senate Republicans. As I will explain (again), any balanced budget constitutional amendment is a bad, bad idea.

I am not against balanced budgets. But a constitutional requirement to balance the federal budget is a virtual guarantee that we will have economic catastrophes that will make the Great Depression look like a picnic. Here is the problem, which should be evident to anybody who has taken Econ 101. When the economy sags, the initial remedy is what we call countercyclical policy — counter the downturn with a jump-start via economic stimulus. Every major country acted in 2008 to do just that, and by consensus avoided a global disaster far more serious than we got.

In the U.S., unlike many other major economies, the need for stimulus at the federal level is even greater because of the deep fiscal drag caused in a downturn by the requirement in nearly all of our states to balance their budgets — which means, in times of adversity, raising taxes and/or cutting spending. This is the equivalent of the medieval practice of bleeding to cure any ailment, including those where the patient was severely anemic. The fiscal drag from the states amounted to roughly $800 billion in 2009. Thus, a stimulus from Washington of $800 billion barely countered the states’ fiscal drag — it merely replaced the blood lost by the state-level bleeding.

Now imagine that instead of a stimulus, which would be blocked by a BBA, we were required to bleed longer and deeper. That is what a BBA would do.

Now on to the BBA of choice for all 47 Senate Republicans. It would cap spending each year at 18 percent of GDP. To reach 18 percent of GDP would require some combination of spending cuts that would either severely slash Social Security and Medicare well below the levels contemplated in the Simpson/Bowles fiscal commission or cutting discretionary spending in half, or decimating defense. The only way to run a deficit outside of war would be via a two-thirds vote of both chambers. There is no way this Congress would get two-thirds votes for anything, no matter how dire our economic straits. This BBA would require 60 percent of both chambers of Congress to increase taxes or the debt limit. This is a formula for gridlock or blackmail by legislative minorities.

I understand the temptation of politicians to support something like a balanced budget amendment for symbolic reasons, to look like fiscal conservatives, to avoid attack ads as fiscal profligates. But a constitutional amendment is not symbolic. It is hard to respect Senators who know, or should know, better for mindlessly supporting such an irresponsible amendment — and that will be true as well for any Democrats who join in this effort. You do not want to be associated with the winner of this award.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.