Zero-Sum Doesn't Quite Cut It

The New York Times has an article today entitled "In Washington’s New Mood of Austerity, Legislating Turns Into a Zero-Sum Game," detailing how the recent surface transportation/student loan/flood insurance bill involved some pay-fors that had avoided the budget axe in the past. As the author Jonathan Weisman describes it:

It is a clear example of how a new era of austerity in Washington is starting to turn legislating into a zero-sum game: somebody’s gain is someone else’s loss.

Highways got money. Bike paths did not. The Gulf Coast secured billions with a provision mandating that 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster go to gulf restoration. The roll-your-own cigarette industry was hit hard. College student loans will keep their subsidies. United States-flagged ships will lose some of theirs.

Paying for prioritized programs or tax cuts is important so that we don't keep digging a bigger hole. But a zero-sum approach won't cut it at this point considering the path that we're on. We need a plan where everyone pays their fair share, not just pain for a few. Ultimately, we will have to do more than pay for temporary policies we extend. Instead, we will need to budget on the whole and reduce our debt over the longer term.

Unfortunately, because so much of government is temporary now, lawmakers are stuck in a cycle of reacting at the last minute to deadlines--pay-fors are all they can manage in this broken system. To break this loop, they should enact a comprehensive fiscal plan that is not zero-sum in terms of the deficit and makes temporary policies permanent where appropriate (tax provisions especially). That will ultimately have huge pay-offs down the road compared to where we're heading.