On Nov. 3, as the bleary-eyed nation returned to work, the Treasury Department announced an impending crisis. If the lame-duck Congress doesn’t raise the statutory $7.384 trillion debt limit, which was intentionally breached in October, by Nov. 18, the world’s greatest power will run out of cash.
Congress, with the White House’s blessing, left town before the election without dealing with the debt limits—but not before passing an appalling, special-interest-written, corporate tax bill that will deprive the government of more than $100 billion in future revenues. That double irresponsibility—the lousy tax bill and the ignored debt limit—was a fitting end to the past four years of essentially one-party rule.
The only solace for sullen Democrats is that now Republicans might have to clean up their own fiscal mess. The fiscal record of the past four years has been one of unmitigated—and seemingly intentional—irresponsibility. A Republican Congress working with a Republican president created the massive new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement, passed a new, subsidy-crammed farm bill, committed hundreds of billions of dollars to war efforts, and loaded up on pork-barrel spending. Meanwhile, taxes were reduced—on wage earners, investors, and companies. The end result: We collected about the same amount of taxes in fiscal 2004 as we did in fiscal 1999. But we spent 34 percent more. The total national debt has risen 30 percent in the past four years. The fiscally conservative Clinton administration had committed government to restraining spending. But now a massive structural gap has opened up between the country’s financial inflows and outflows. It’s only the willingness of the Chinese and Japanese central banks to buy our debt that keeps us afloat.
Freed of the need to run for re-election, will Bush act more fiscally responsible in a second term? Wishful thinking. This crowd literally doesn’t have a clue when it comes to fiscal matters. Bush actually believes he has restrained Congressional spending, Cheney believes deficits don’t matter, and most members of the Bush economic team can’t—or won’t—speak truth publicly. As for Congress, when it comes to managing the nation’s fiscal affairs, House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert is a pretty good wrestling coach, and Senate Majority Leader William Frist is a pretty good doctor.
And so, while the moral-values crowd may have won, the fiscal orgy in Washington is sure to continue. Given Bush’s mandate and his stated desire to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax (a huge tax reduction), make the temporary tax cuts permanent (ditto), and transform Social Seucrity (massive borrowing), his pledge to halve the deficit by 2009 is absurd.
In decades past, increasing Republican dominance of the House and Senate would have meant more fiscal discipline. But Republicans increasingly dominate the states that are net drains on Federal taxes—the Southern and Great Plains states—while fading in the coastal states that produce a disproportionate share of federal revenue. (It’s Republicans, not Democrats, who are sucking on the federal teat.) What Amity Shlaes quaintly identified in today’s Financial Times as the “southern culture of tax cutting” has been married to the southern culture of failing to generate wealth and the southern culture of depending on federal largesse. The offspring is an unsightly deficit monster.
Establishmentarianshave long wondered when the grown-ups will asserts themselves in the Republican party. The stark truth today is that there are no grown-ups. The day before the election, I saw my congressman, Republican Chris Shays of Connecticut, greeting potential voters on Platform 19 at Grand Central Station, the launching point for the 5:01 to New Haven, the Bushenfreude express. When I thanked him for cutting my taxes, Shays smiled broadly. But when I suggested that he had raised taxes on my children, he looked at me quizzically. “You have to know all these tax cuts aren’t really tax cuts. They’re just tax shifts,” I said. “All this debt has to be paid back.”
Shays acknowledged that there had been a massive increase in debt. “But 40 percent of that is due to spending.” That was the moment I realized my sober, moderate representative may have slipped the surly bonds of reality. Like virtually every other Republican in Congress, Shays had voted for each of Bush’s revenue-reducing tax cuts and every spending-increasing budget. And yet he seemed blissfully, willfully unaware of the role he—and his party—played in controlling, originating, and approving all that spending. “And did you vote for the Medicare bill?” I asked. “I did,” he smiled. As I scurried off to get a seat before the doors closed, I heard a plaintive cry from one of the last remaining Republican moderates in Congress: “But I voted against the farm bill!”
If this is what passes for a deficit hawk, we’re in big trouble. The Republicans have suffered no political consequences for destroying the nation’s balance sheet, after all. Why should they take the painful efforts needed to fix the mess they created? No one is holding them accountable. It leaves those yearning for some return to fiscal sanity in the perverse position of hoping for a crisis in the bond or currency markets to shock the faith-based crowd back into reality. And when that adjustment comes, I can’t wait to see how conservatives try to find a way to blame it on Clinton.