Why Deficit Hawks Don’t Do a Scorecard

Ezra Klein says the deficit cutting community should stop handing out awards based on subjective evaluations and just do a scorecard:

All of these groups release dozens and dozens of graphs every week. They know full well that the best way to judge a policy proposal is to put the numbers down on paper and then convert them into some form that makes it easy to recognize patterns and assess outcomes. Sometimes, the numbers say what you thought they were saying. But, importantly, sometimes they don’t. That’s why we go through the trouble of using Excel, which seems to have been designed by people who wanted to punish us. Or at least me.

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When it comes to judging politicians, however, all that empirical rigor goes out the window. It doesn’t need to. Just as the AFL-CIO keeps track of how politicians vote on questions that are important to organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce keeps track of how politicians vote on issues of importance to the Chamber of Commerce, the deficit hawk groups should record the way every member of Congress votes on bills of importance to the deficit. Use the CBO’s numbers, put them into a spreadsheet, and soon enough you’ll be able to show whether this or that politician has been fiscally responsible or fiscally irresponsible over the last year — and your metric will be whether they voted responsibly, not whether they spoke responsibly. Then you can give your awards out on merit, and they’d be very difficult to question.

I’m not sure if Ezra’s being coy here, but obviously the problem with this proposal is that if you implemented it you would find that virtually every Democrat has a more deficit-hawkish record than virtually every Republican, and that liberal Democrats are usually more fiscally responsible than moderate Democrats. But “fiscal responsibility” groups are generally financed by political moderates who are committed to the idea of bipartisanship and whose idea of good public policy is to achieve a Bowles/Simpson-style compromise between conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats. To their credit these folks also play it pretty straight when producing their charts and graphs about individual legislative proposals. But the point of advocacy groups’ scorecards is to advance their advocacy agenda, and that wouldn’t work for “fiscal responsibility” groups or their donors.