Commentary Magazine


Have We Got a Bridge for You!

Rep. Tom Perriello, Democrat of Virginia, is in deep political trouble. He was elected in 2008 in his central Virginia district that runs from Charlottesville down to the North Carolina border, thanks to President Obama’s coattails. He is now running as many as 26 points behind his Republican opponent in what is basically a Republican district. But as Barbara Hollingsworth points out in the Washington Examiner, last spring he made a remarkable admission.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned up here (in Washington) and I didn’t really need to come up here to learn it, is the only way to get Congress to balance the budget is to give them no choice, and the only way to keep them out of the cookie jar is to give them no choice, which is why — whether it’s balanced-budget acts or pay-as-you-go legislation or any of that — is the only thing. If you don’t tie our hands, we will keep stealing.

He is exactly right and we have forty years of sometimes grotesquely unbalanced budgets to prove it. And the stealing will go on — and in splendidly bipartisan fashion — unless it becomes impossible. But balanced-budget acts will not work (they haven’t in the past) and neither will pay-as-you-go (which likewise hasn’t worked). Whenever Congress feels enough public pressure, it passes something with a fancy now-we’re-serious-about-spending title but carefully inserts loopholes that allow billions to be spent outside the rules. The Washington press corps, with its totally inside-the-beltway mentality and priorities, pays little or no attention. Most of the Iraq war, for instance, was “emergency spending.” What, every year Congress looked out the window and perceived, much to its surprise, that there was a war raging on?

How do we change this? How do we force Congress to balance the budget or make a deliberate public decision not to?

There is only one way: the federal government must be subject to the same discipline

that every corporation in the country is subject to: an independent accounting authority that sets the rules for how the government’s books are kept and determines if those rules are being followed. In other words, it should be an independent, politically insulated, accounting board that decides what is “emergency spending,” not Congress or the President.

There is an excellent example of how such a system works in practice. When New York City went broke after decades of phony accounting to hide the gathering disaster, New York State wouldn’t help until the city agreed to be subjected to a Financial Control Board and to adopt Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Today, New York City — which has a larger population than all but 11 states — is in good financial shape. New York State, which, needless to say, did not impose such restraints on itself, is a financial basket case, second only to California among the states for the depth of its financial crisis.

So pay no attention to all the blather about balancing the budget and “lock boxes” and pay-as-you-go schemes and all the rest of that nonsense you’ll be hearing in the next two months from Democrats and Republicans alike. When you hear them talk about giving up the power to cook the books, you’ll know they’re perhaps getting serious. Until then, they’re just blowing smoke. The Washington press corps will buy it (they always do — there’s apparently no limit to the number of times you can sell Washington journalists the Brooklyn Bridge) but the electorate shouldn’t be fooled. Just ask Tom Perriello.