Many politicians, activists and journalists are embracing the myth that the path to a balanced budget lies through cuts in discretionary programs. As David Brooks notes, rather than grapple with the reality that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt are rapidly becoming the bulk of federal spending, some elected officials are proposing to trim a range of discretionary programs irrespective of their effectiveness or their collective impact on federal debt (which is utterly trivial compared to entitlements). Brooks argues that many of these cuts will do harm while making no meaningful contribution to balancing the budget, and he is correct.
What I find particularly odd about this process is that members in the House of Representatives are among those leading the charge. The creation and oversight of discretionary programs is the biggest and most complex responsibility the House of Representatives has. To analyze problems, hold hearings and design good legislation is serious work which many House members in history have done masterfully, making an enduring contribution in the process. Unlike the Senate, the House doesn’t do executive branch confirmations, vote on treaties, or advise and consent on judicial nominations.
So I ask: What will the House of Representatives do all day if we continue on this path? The entitlement programs are on auto-pilot and the executive branch can certainly take in and send out checks without the help of the House. Representatives’ oversight role gets less and less important as the discretionary programs become smaller and smaller. If they forbid themselves from responding to emerging social problems with new discretionary programs, they will be left with little to do other than hold press conferences about how terrible this or that problem is and wouldn’t it be great if someone could solve it for free? I half wonder if the ultimate plan is to reduce all discretionary programs to zero and then close the House itself, selling off half the Capitol Dome to private industry…maybe Ringling Brothers could stage a profitable high wire act in there, creating some jobs for recently unemployed clowns in the process.