President Obama’s fiscal policies are a mess. Whatever one thinks of the need for stimulus in a severe recession, it is obvious that running trillion-dollar deficits for years on end is unsustainable. Moreover, his proposals are dishonest. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that his proposed 2012 budget underestimates spending while overestimating revenues.
Sadly, the Republicans have offered no viable alternative.
The failure of our leaders to offer realistic budget proposals was a major reason I decided to retire after 28 years in Congress, most of them as a professional staff member on the Republican side of both the House and Senate Budget Committees. My party talks a good game, railing about the immorality of passing debt on to our children. But the same Congressional Budget Office that punctured Obama’s budget also concluded that the major policies that swung the budget from a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion in 2001 to the present 10-year deficit of $6.2 trillion were Republican in origin.
Consider the two signature GOP policies of George W. Bush’s presidency: the wars and the tax cuts. Including debt service costs, Bush’s wars have cost about $1.7 trillion to date. Additionally, as part of being “a nation at war,” the Pentagon has spent about $1 trillion more than was expected in the last decade on things other than direct war costs, which has been a bonanza for military contractors but a disaster for the federal budget. And finally, there has been another trillion dollars spent domestically in response to 9/11, including spending on such things as establishing the Homeland Security Department and increasing the budgets for the State Department and the Veterans Administration.
The Bush tax cuts have added an additional $3 trillion in red ink. While Republican leaders wail that Americans — particularly their rich contributors — are overtaxed, the facts say otherwise: U.S. taxpayers, particularly the wealthiest, pay far less in taxes than they would in most other developed countries. Today, the 400 wealthiest Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 125 million. The GOP insists that those wealthy people use their money to create jobs, and that taxing them more heavily would ultimately hurt the economy. But, if that’s so, why was the rate of job creation in the decade after the Bush tax cuts the poorest in any decade since before World War II?
Like a drunk swearing off hooch for the hundredth time, Republicans are now trying to show they are serious about controlling the deficit by saying they won’t raise the debt ceiling unless they get through some of their cost-saving projects, like privatizing Medicare. Meanwhile, they want revenue increases “off the table,” even though, at 14.8 percent of GDP, revenues are at their lowest level in 60 years. And the budget passed by the Republican-controlled House further cuts taxes on the wealthy, a fact it glosses over with optimistic growth forecasts.
Raising the debt ceiling isn’t, as the GOP tries to say, Congress giving itself permission to continue excessive spending: It’s something that’s necessary to pay for past congressional decisions on taxes and spending, and those decisions were made primarily when Republicans were in charge.
No one wants to have to raise the debt ceiling. But not doing so could lead to at least a temporary default on our debt, which would force up interest rates for everyone and add more than a trillion dollars to the cost of servicing the federal government’s debt. Moreover, a default could seize up our private financial system in a manner similar to the Lehman Bros. collapse. Do the Republican holdouts really want that? If so, they might want to take a hard look at the streets of Athens.
The policy of full faith and credit, constructed by Alexander Hamilton more than two centuries ago, has served us well. We shouldn’t abandon it to a misplaced ideology.
Polarization based on juvenile talk radio sloganeering is dragging this country to the cliff’s edge. If neither the Democrats nor the party I have served for three decades is willing to act like adults, perhaps it’s time for a party that is willing to step into the void.
Mike Lofgren retired as a congressional staffer on June 17. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.