Other times, the president or Congress used budget gimmicks to front-load spending or tax cuts, then balance them out with spending cuts in later years. Mr. Riedl said that trick was used when Congress expanded veterans’ benefits and children’s health insurance over the past two years.
The three times pay-go rules have worked - after 1990, 1993 and 1997 - they came as part of budget deals that put both Republicans and Democrats on record as saying cutting the deficit was more important than new spending or new tax cuts. As a result, each side was eager to enforce the rules, figuring it was better to deny the other side its victory.
“You had actual policies in place and then the pay-as-you-go was put in place essentially to lock in the savings,” said James R. Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The Republicans were w orried the Democrats might try to come back and undo the spending cuts, and the Democrats were worried the Republicans would come back later and undo the tax increases.”
The problem for Mr. Obama, analysts say, is that he didn’t go secure that consensus this time around, and now he risks having pay-go become an empty threat.
“It’s not a high bar - it’s not enforcing a budget deal, which is ultimately what we have to do,” Ms. MacGuineas said.
Still, she said there is real value in Mr. Obama’s move, even if it’s only a signal to his own party rank-and-file that their spending wish-lists will not be fulfilled.
“This is a flag in the ground from the administration and the Democratic leadership, almost focused on their own members, saying don’t come to us with new policies that aren’t paid for,” Ms. MacGuineas said.
Mr. Obama’s proposal walks back from some of the principles that governed in the past.
His pay-go rules would not apply to extending some of the Bush tax cuts, to fixing the alternative minimum tax or to increase Medicare doctors’ payments. Mr. Orszag said those changes are bound to be made anyway, and Mr. Horney said without those exemptions, Congress would have just voted to waive the rules in each case, and that would have been the beginning of the end.
“Once you start waiving it, you won’t stop,” he said.
Mr. Riedl at the Heritage Foundation said Mr. Obama could prove he’s serious about the cuts, but only if he and Congress “pledged to never cancel a single sequestration and to avoid all gimmicks and timing shifts that would cover up pay-go violations.”