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Ezra Klein and CAP Intentionally Misrepresent Cut, Cap and Balance

John on July 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Monday, Ezra Klein posted a splashy info-graphic created by the Center for American Progress. The graphic was designed to ridicule the Cut, Cap and Balance bill proposed by the GOP based on the claim that it would cap spending at a rate not seen since 1966. Klein repeated this claim in his post saying:

The proposal would, among other things, cap federal spending at 18 percent of the previous year’s gross domestic product. The last time we were anywhere near there wasn’t during George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. It was in 1966.

Several folks including Nick Gillespie at Reason and Lachlan Markay at Heritage pointed out that Klein was wrong about this. Here’s Lachlan’s response:

Klein has claimed, falsely, that the plan would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP. In fact, the Cut, Cap and Balance Act passed by the House on Tuesday brings spending down to 22.5 percent of GDP in 2012, then gradually reduces it to 19.9 percent in 2019, where it remains…The 19.9 percent cap would bring the federal government, in terms of spending as a percentage of GDP, all the way back to…2007.

He’s right, as you can see for yourself on page 7 of the bill (link to pdf). But Klein put up a response Wednesday in which he tried to justify himself:

As far as I can tell, his confusion stems from the fact that the legislation includes two parts: First, a law limiting federal spending, and second, a constitutional amendment limiting federal spending. He’s looking at the limits in the law. I’m looking at the limits in the constitutional amendment.

Title III of the Cut, Cap and Balance legislation says the debt ceiling can’t be lifted until Congress passes a constitutional amendment balancing the budget, capping spending and imposing a supermajority for tax increases. It specifically mentions S.J.Res.10, which is the constitutional amendment introduced in the Senate and supported by every Senate Republican, and the one whose numbers I’m using. It also mentions H.J.Res.1.RH, which appears to include the same limits. Until one of those constitutional amendments, or some variant of them, clears Congress, the debt ceiling can’t be lifted. And there are no exemptions for Medicare, Social Security, or anything else in either proposed amendment.

As always when reading Ezra Klein, you have to look for the critical information he’s leaving out. In this case, his effort at a CYA leads him to reduce the most critical fact down to this one little parenthetical clause that the casual reader might not really take to mean much, i.e. “or some variant of them.” In reality, this is where Klein’s argument (and CAP’s graphic) fall completely apart.

It’s true there are three parts to Cut, Cap and Balance. The second part sets a gradual cap down to 19.9 percent. The third part, balance, requires a balanced budget amendment. It is true that the document highlights three different amendments and all of them do in fact have an 18% cap in them. However, the document also says (bottom of page 9):

Effective on the date the Archivist of the United States transmits to the States H. J. Res 1 in the form reported, S. J. Res. 10 in the form introduced, or H. J. Res. 56 in the form introduced, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, or a similar amendment if it requires that total outlays not exceed total receipts, contains a spending limitation as a percentage of GDP, and requires tax increases be approved by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress for their ratification…

In other words, Cut, Cap and Balance requires a balance budget amendment which includes a “spending limitation as a percentage of GDP” but it does not specify what that limit must be. Ezra Klein and CAP have chosen to believe this cap must be 18% even though the bill itself says no such thing. In fact, there is every reason to think this would not be the intent of the bill. Why?

Given that the bill itself specifies a plan to gradually cap spending down to 19.9% over a period of years, a reasonable person would conclude that the bill did not immediately undercut this scheme by introducting an 18% cap a mere three pages later. In fact, only someone looking to misrepresent the bill could possibly think otherwise.

It’s no surprise that the Center for American Progress would create a slick graphic based on an intentional misreading of the bill. It is a little surprising that Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein would join them in the deception.

I have little doubt CAP’s deception was intentional but I wonder if Klein’s was accidental, at least at first. Once he was called on his error, then he decided to conceal the truth from his readers to cover his own butt. It’s not the first time he’s done that.

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