Senator Claire McCaskill likes to trade on her experience as a former state auditor and the aura of fiscal expertise it bestows. She often speaks as one initiated into the arcane financial arts, especially when she puts forward her idée fixe that the deficit must be addressed and right now, thank you.  Which is why it’s enlightening, if depressing for Missouri Democrats, to see how her prescriptions for the economy stand up to the analysis of those who regularly deal with economic policy.

To do so, one doesn’t have to look far afield. James Homey of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is struck by the irony inherent in the McCasill-Corker spending cap, the proposal that our beloved Senator has been shopping around as a solution to the deficit:

It is striking that when she unveiled the proposal, Senator McCaskill criticized as “ridiculous” the recent House Republican Study Committee plan to cut nondefense discretionary funding over ten years by about $2.5 trillion. … But by the same standard,it is hard to conclude that the McCaskill-Corker proposal, which would mandate about $4.5 trillion in spending reductions over ten years in all programs – discretionary programs plus entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – is any more responsible.

In a recent post, Ezra Klein, calling it the “second worst idea in Washington,” eviscerates the spending cap proposal – the adoption of which, as Klein notes, is being bandied about as the possible cost of a deal with the GOP to raise the debt ceiling. Klein immediately dings McCaskill for trying to out-Republican the Republicans:

The virtue of a spending cap is that by focusing on only one contributor to debt, it admits only one solution to it: spending cuts. Savage ones. The Corker-McCaskill proposal is so aggressive that there are years when even Paul Ryan’s budget, with all its fantastical assumptions and hard caps, wouldn’t qualify. “You put McCaskill-Corker into law,” says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “and progressive policy is dead for the next quarter-century.”

Klein adds that “it’s easy to understand why Republicans would embrace legislation making their favored solutions the only possible solutions. What’s less clear is why McCaskill … would do the same.” Some of us have been trying to make just that point to McCaskill, but, of course all we get back is the same refrain that Rep. Billy Long came up with yesterday at a Tea Party rally – “We have to do something” about the deficit. Such a response coming from McCaskill deserves just as much contempt as it elicits when coming from Long – contempt which Klein doesn’t hesitate to bestow:

Saying “America has a spending problem” is saying “I don’t understand the budget and don’t want to learn anything further about it.” We have a health-care costs problem, an aging problem and a taxing problem. But a spending cap has nothing to say about any of these problems. … A spending cap is an effort to deny our real problems, not to fix them. It allows politicians to sound tough and solutions-oriented without forcing them to actually develop any solutions.


Klein speculates that McCaskill, with an eye to the 2012 elections and her purple-to-red electorate, is doing just that. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.  After writing to ask Senator McCaskill to stand up to the GOP thugs who tried to take the 2011 budget hostage, I received a response that contained this statement:

As you know, the elections in 2010 led to a significant change in the makeup of Congress, in large part as a result of Americans’ frustration with a lack of fiscal responsibility from their elected leaders.

And this interpretation of the 2010 election is probably true insofar as it references the only voting bloc to turn out big-time: the Tea Party and their fellow fringe GOPers. Of course, even in this context, it fails to take into account the general state of economic confusion that typifies the rank-and-file members of this group – who, after all, believed the claim of openly anti-Medicare Roy Blunt that, if elected, he would save Medicare from the depredations of Democrats.

Nor does it address the reason that lots of  Democrats were just too uninterested in the fate of the country to make it out on that particular Tuesday in November. I would like to suggest that that phenomena might be the result of too many Democratic politicians, like McCaskill, who can’t  wait to appropriate GOP rhetoric – after filing down a few rough edges of course.

McCaskill is voluble on the topic of the killing effect of the deficit on our future – but so far, I haven’t heard her react to the charge that a premature overemphasis on the deficit is a job killer right now when jobs should be our biggest priority. If you are interested in what spending cuts do to struggling economies, you need look no further than the decrease in GDP that has resulted from Great Britain’s embrace of austerity measures of the sort that McCaskill wants to force down our throats via an ill-considered, automatic spending cap.

The evidence is all there – we need to address jobs before deficits – and to be very careful not to let ginned up panic about the deficit lead those in government to endorse clumsy measures like McCaskill-Corker that will just make life a lot worse for a long time. Does anybody have any ideas about how to get our former state auditor and would-be deep financial thinker, Senator Claire McCaskill, to listen and learn?