How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love PayGo
Up until a few weeks ago, I doubt many members of the public had heard of a proposed House of Representatives rule called PayGo, which just got passed overwhelmingly last week with only reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard voting against it. However, along the clogged and constantly outraged highways and byways of political Twitter where I spend some of my time, the issue has gotten a fair amount of play.
There’s a history to PayGo (or “pay as you go”) that’s worth checking out. This piece from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a fairly decent primer and it’s written in language that a normal human being can make sense of. I don’t love the way they throw around the now insidiously codified word “entitlements” to describe spending that actually benefits the people, but they’re an inside baseball kind of org. so the elitist-tinged verbiage is expected. Regardless, it’s helpful history.
Before we get too far into the weeds, here are the basics:
PayGo means that any proposed legislation that would cause the government to increase the deficit can’t be voted on unless it also offers tax increases or cuts to other programs to offset (and therefore nullify) the deficit spending.
Now, as I said, this rule has gotten a lot of progressives up in arms because it seems designed to keep ambitious, expensive ideas like a Green New Deal or Medicare for All as far away from a floor vote as possible. Given the corporate capture of the majority of American politicians across both parties, I suspect that’s true. Their donors certainly don’t want to even see a public debate on this stuff, let alone actual passage and, as I’ve written in the past, donors are their true constituents. While this is likely why even many members of the House Progressive Caucus voted yes on PayGo (a betrayal, screams lefty Twitter!), for some it was also a calculation that the rule is waive-able, largely symbolic and won’t end up being a genuine impediment to progressive legislation.
This view of the PayGo situation as largely symbolic and meaningless is echoed and expanded upon by Eric Levitz in a recent New York Magazine article. It’s a good piece. I recommend checking it out, but I don’t agree with his conclusions. Pelosi put PayGo in the House rules package for a reason and it’s naïve to think she doesn’t plan to use it as a cudgel on the increasingly popular new progressive members of the House. I mean, c’mon. She’s on record proclaiming the Democratic Party as unabashedly capitalist — and ideas like Medicare for All are simply not capitalist in orientation. She’s not going to let that pseudo-socialist noise get too loud.
But Levitz’s piece got at something that I’m not completely sure he intended, which is one of the reasons you should read it. He explains that each chamber of Congress has this PayGo rule on the books, but when they don’t want to follow it they just vote not to follow it. Or they ignore it altogether. On top of that, there’s actually a 2010 federal PayGo law in effect (passed when Pelosi was Speaker of the House, btw) which sits above the PayGo rules in the House and Senate, but when expensive legislation is up for passage, politicians also just vote it away or ignore it at whim.
Are you fucking kidding me? Wrap your head around this for a minute and see it for the hilarious theater it is.
These are rules that politicians go out of their way to put in place — and then ignore when it suits them. This is one of the reasons you didn’t hear a big debate on the deficit implications of the latest astronomical Pentagon budget, or the Trump tax cuts, or the border wall. It’s a joke. These laws are put in place so they can be followed only when politicians want to block something without having to go on record as voting it down.
Too many mainstream journalists and a fair amount of our fellow citizens handicap their own political imaginations by taking the ridiculous obfuscating procedural circus of our government too seriously. It’s a shell game, a con. The goalposts are on greasy wheels.
Honestly, I think any true-blue anti-imperialist progressive should love PayGo.
It always helps to slow down and consider the full context of our political situation here in the U.S. The government and the politicians within it are owned and operated by international oligarchs, large corporations (and their minions) and the military/intelligence agencies. The general population is, in large swaths, uninformed, demoralized, checked out or too swamped with the trials of daily life to care about politics. If you’re a progressive legislator, you don’t have a ton of hope in passing ambitious legislation.
You make a lot of noise. You cause controversy. You make other politicians look bad. You wake up and mobilize as many people out there as you can.
When you recognize that context, PayGo is a massive playground for your political imagination. Say you’re Ocasio-Cortez and you’ve got a bill to create free college for all. You know that even if you cobble together some co-sponsors for your bill, it’ll never get a floor vote because free college costs a lot of money, and Pelosi will invoke PayGo.
You’re familiar with how PayGo works. You have to attach tax increases or spending cuts on other programs to get your bill a hearing and a vote. So you build into your bill that free college will offset its deficit spending by cutting a major Pentagon fighter plane boondoggle, or by cutting subsidies to oil companies, or by slashing a nuclear weapons program, or by closing expensive military bases abroad, or by introducing a tax on financial speculation. Hell, you don’t just build it into your bill, you make it a selling point — and you shine a glaring neon fucking spotlight on it. And then you go talk about it in speeches, to activist groups and on any media outlet that will have you. You make a lot of noise.
All of a sudden, you’ve got people talking about free college and cutting the Pentagon AT THE SAME DAMN TIME. You’ve got activist groups mobilizing. You’ve got politicians scrambling around trying to shut you down — and making themselves look foolish in the process. You’ve got late-night comedians taking shots at you. Maybe you’ve even got more of the public paying attention. In politics, that’s called a win.
Look, if you want to get something done in a corrupted criminal government filled with donor-obsequious clowns, it helps a lot if you don’t take their procedures at face value. Don’t accord them respect they haven’t earned. Instead, turn those phony procedures on their head. Play with them a little bit. Dial down the righteous outrage and recognize. PayGo is your new jungle gym. Hang upside-down. Make funny faces. Enjoy yourself!
Consider this a message from your friendly neighborhood radical.
Thanks for reading.