PAYGO skirmish is the beginning of the fight Democrats need to have to get over deficit obsession
Once sworn in Thursday, the newly Democratic House will take up the rules package that will govern the chamber’s operations for the 116th Congress. One of the rules is causing headaches for the incoming leadership team, as it should: PAYGO, which requires that any new spending be offset by cuts in other parts of the budget or by tax increases.
The problem is that it’s never been used effectively by Democrats to argue for tax increases. This is a dumb holdover from Republican rule that has been ingrained in incumbent Democratic thinking, including that of Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team. It’s an old obsession with the deficit that needs to end, considering it’s never been a real issue. Republicans jettisoned it as anything but a cudgel with which to beat up on “tax-and-spend liberals” ages ago, with George W. Bush’s wars and tax cuts for the rich.
Democrats have to stop flinching on this one. They have to recognize, in the words of Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), that it’s “an absurd idea,” and “irresponsible.” Now would be a great time to do that, after what’s increasingly looking like a realignment election. It’s time to change the narrative on what responsible government looks like, and it would be great to go into the 2020 election with that commitment.
However, it’s frankly not going to make a whole helluva lot of difference in the next two years of actual policymaking, because any of the important progressive policy initiatives this Democratic House comes up with won’t get anywhere near Mitch McConnell’s Senate floor. There are also some provisions in the rule in the bill that provide for “exemptions, given an emergency designation.” A potential financial crisis brought on by Trump’s instability and economic malpractice would be an example of an emergency that would allow the rule to be waived.
Two representatives, Ro Khanna and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have vowed to vote against the rule because of PAYGO. The problem with doing that is that they’re also voting against the rule that will create the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and against the House’s ability to intervene in the lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. A savvier move here might be to try to amend the rules package on the floor to gut PAYGO, which might get them the votes they need to get rid of it.
This rebellion is probably not going to be effective, at least not in terms of getting PAYGO out of Democrats’ system. We’re going to need a solid two years of hammering on it to make that happen.