Why Some Campaign Promises Should Be Broken

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Sometimes I wish politicians didn't keep the promises they make. Of course, that goes against all conventional political wisdom. A candidate makes a pledge on the campaign trail, a congressman takes a stand on the House floor and Lord help them if they decide to change their minds later. Their opponent in the next campaign skewers them and voters can be unforgiving. But I'm always nervous when a politician makes an ironclad promise, particularly when it has to do with the economy. Economic conditions are constantly changing. Assumptions and policy decisions made in one year — or even one quarter — can be DOA by the next. I'd love to see politicians be more flexible and say, "Yeah, I know I promised that last year but times have changed and I've changed my mind."

Washington is now grappling with two promises politicians made that they'd do well to reconsider. As a candidate last year, George W. Bush promised that if you elected him president he'd cut taxes by $1.4 trillion over ten years. This was basically a back-of-the envelope number Bush came up with, and Republican senators were telling me privately at the beginning of the year that it was probably too high. But a promise is a promise, so the GOP pushed a $1.4 trillion cut in Congress, and eventually compromised with the Democrats at $1.27 trillion. Even that number is probably too much, what with the economic downturn shrinking projected surpluses during the decade.

Which gets us to the second promise. The sagging economy and the first installment of Bush’s tax cut have so reduced tax revenues that the only surplus left for this year, and for the next couple, are the hundreds of billions of dollars extra collected for Social Security. Congress routinely dipped into Social Security surpluses when they began appearing in 1983 in order to pay for other government programs, and economists see no harm in doing that now, particularly as a recession hedge.

'The Democrats are trying to stay as far away from the tax argument as they can because they know they'll lose,' says a Republican aide. 'They don't do well on tax arguments and we don't do well on Social Security.'
But that means breaking a promise. In 1998, Republicans and Democrats made a blood oath never to touch the Social Security surplus and they fear it would be political suicide to do so now. But it may be impossible not to dip into the fund if Bush wants to spend more on education and still give the Pentagon $18.4 billion extra next year for a national missile defense. And it may be a good idea to dip into the fund to help stimulate the economy. But so far, the only politician to stick his head above the parapet and say times have changed and so should our minds is Sen. Pete Domenici, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. "What's wrong with using it for education," Domenici said last week. "I have now talked with 15 economists. None of them believe that is good economic policy for America to say we cannot touch those [funds] in a time of declining growth."

Domenici's trial balloon was met with deafening silence by his Republican colleagues. Pry open the Social Security lock box? Not a chance, says the GOP. Democrats can't wait to blast Republicans for dipping into that trust fund. So just the opposite is happening. "People are beginning to figure out where their foxholes and gun emplacements are to be located and where they're going to start the war," a Senate Republican leadership aide tells me. "The first shots have been fired over Social Security and the economy. On the economy, Republicans have the high ground because we believe we're trying to address it and show people we have solutions. On Social Security, the Democrats have the high ground, saying we're dipping into it. They keep saying it over and over again." The Republicans counter that if the Democrats are criticizing the tax cuts, it means they're still for tax increases. "The Democrats are trying to stay as far away from the tax argument as they can because they know they'll lose," this Republican aide continued. "They don't do well on tax arguments and we don't do well on Social Security."

Smelling blood, Democrats have begun a two-pronged attack: complaining loudly that Bush will raid Social Security to preserve his hefty tax cut, while at the same time giving him no room to wiggle out of his dilemma. "It’s their budget, their tax cut, and I think it ought to be their solution," says Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

So nobody gets blamed for breaking a promise, both sides will try to play games now with the 13 appropriations bills Congress must pass to fund the federal government in fiscal year 2002. Congressional Republicans and Bush worry that Senate Democrats will try to sequence votes on the appropriations bills so that Bush gets his education funding first, in order to set up a budget battle later that pits Social Security against defense. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, for example, wants to have House-Senate conferences on the appropriations bills as both chambers pass them.

"Dream on, Mr. Byrd," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay tells me. House Republicans are resisting beginning conferences on any of the appropriations bills until they see all 13 that the Senate Democrats pass and how they've apportioned all the money. To get around being trapped in a defense-versus- Social Security box, Republicans are talking about across-the-board spending cuts.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott also want to pass a stimulus package that includes a cut in the capital gains tax, hoping to juice up the economy in the short term and grow their way out of the surplus shortfall. Bush is intrigued, but not sure he wants to buy into more tax cuts that might plunge the government into more red ink later. The White House and Congress are also mulling whether to slow down the outlay rates for next year — that's the money the government actually spends for budgeted items — in order to have more for the non-Social Security surplus.

Sound complicated and convoluted? It is. But a promise is a promise.