Austerity has become the new religion in American politics.
I call it religion, because the notion of austerity during the current economy is based largely on faith and not on sound economic policies that could help create jobs and boost recovery.
For as long as I can remember, there have been rumblings about out-of-control government spending, about the deficit and about the debt. The argument is repeated over and over again at every level of government, from the school board and city council through the Maine Legislature and all the way down to Washington.
Now, the 47 Republican members of the U.S. Senate have said they support a constitutional amendment that would require the federal government to balance its budget every year.
Politicians — usually Republicans — argue that government should be run as if it were a private business or like a family, who must balance its budget.
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe makes the family argument in an op-ed with South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint that appeared Monday in the Bangor Daily News, but has received considerable play around the country, including on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.
According to Snowe and DeMint, “The American people who will vote on such an amendment understand the basic financial rules that Washington has been breaking. In the real world, if a household brought in $44,000 annually but spent $74,000 by borrowing $30,000 each year to sustain its spending habits, such behavior would be considered reckless and irresponsible.”
But if every Maine family was required to balance its budget, very few of us could afford to buy a car, own a home or send our kids to college, an argument that New York Times economic columnistDavid Leonhardt made on July 7.
Likewise, businesses rely upon borrowing to grow, expand, modernize and create jobs. They aren’t expected to pay cash when they add equipment to become more competitive.
And we shouldn’t demand it of our government, which should have the flexibility to invest and to react to emergencies.
There’s no question that federal spending and federal revenues are out of whack.
When the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently Libya, we did so because our leaders believed it was vital to national security. But the cost has been staggering, in the trillions of dollars.
When President Bush and Congress agreed that Medicare should include a prescription drug plan to help the elderly afford medicine, we knew that there would be a huge price tag.
And during the same time, when President Bush, then President Obama and several Congresses agreed to cut taxes, we knew the deficit and the debt would grow.
Regardless of your position on the wars, the drug plan or the tax cuts, they have been major contributors to the debt.
On the other side of the ledger book, we have been unwilling to pay for the things we want.
While a Constitutional amendment might make that necessary going forward, right now it’s an idea that suffers from the same fatal flaw as the wars, the tax cuts and the new social services spending.
Supporting the Constitutional amendment is free and it’s painless. It might be good politics.
But implementing the idea down the road wouldn’t be. In fact, the requirement for a balanced budget would be devastating to our economy, cripple our infrastructure and require massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and military spending.
In May, Sen. Snowe and Maine Sen. Susan Collins both voted against a Republican budget plan that would have gutted Medicare and Medicaid.
And they both took a tough vote — for which they deserve tremendous credit — to pass theRecovery Act. While there’s an entire industry of political consultants who are making a living bashing the Recovery Act, without it the U.S. economy would have been doomed and recession would have turned to depression.
It’s a willingness to take tough votes like these that have set Snowe and Collins apart, and it’s why their support for this Constitutional amendment is disheartening.
The promise of the austerity that the amendment would bring is really just another way to push the really hard spending and tax decisions down the road.
And that’s how we got in the mess we’re in now.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.
Columnist George Will is on vacation.