Johnny take a walk with your sister the moon
Let her pale light in to fill up the room
You’ve been living underground, eating from a can
You’ve been running away from what you don’t understand.
—U2, Mysterious Ways
Brand new year: same old, same old.
By now you’ve heard that Congress managed to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” a supposedly imminent disaster. It did so via a 154-page bill that was initially passed in the Senate at 1:39 a.m. Tuesday morning, just three minutes after it was made available to the membership for review. The House passed it later Tuesday morning, and the President signed it on Wednesday, both in violation of pledges to have any legislation available for a minimum public review period before taking any action.
This is how out of control the District has become: passing bills in the middle of the night that no one can possibly have read, purportedly to resolve some sort of emergency crisis. Worse, the so-called emergency is one of Congress’ own making, in no small part to a courage void in the GOP leadership.
Flashback to the summer of 2011. The Beast was butting up against what was then a debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion (ah, the good old days). Congressional Republicans, pushed by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), caved in to the Obama administration and agreed to a stopgap measure that allowed for immediate and future increases in the debt limit in exchange for modest spending cuts identified now and larger spending cuts to be hashed out by an unconstitutional “supercommittee,” whose decision would be final and binding on the rest of Congress. Of course, I and others pointed out at the time that the spending “cuts” were illusory; those that were identified were miniscule and spread over ten years (i.e., they were really small reductions in future spending increases), and the larger cuts to be determined by the supercommittee would never come to pass.
This 2011 deal amounted to a Wimpy-style payment plan in which they agreed to debt (read: spending) increases now in exchange for a promise to discuss spending cuts later. The debt ceiling was increased to $14.7 trillion, then $15.2 trillion, then to its current level of $16.4 trillion. Meanwhile, the supercommittee met a grand total of five times, and predictably failed to reach any agreement on additional future spending cuts. All the while, Obama got to campaign for re-election without having to face his base over reductions in government giveaways.
This is what the Democrats call “bipartisan cooperation”: they get what they want right now, and then renege on what they promised to give the Republicans in the future in exchange.
Fast-forward to December 2012. The stick that was supposed to have driven the supercommittee was the 2011 plan’s provision for an automatic $1.2 trillion in essentially across-the-board spending cuts, effective January 2 of this year (so-called “budget sequestration”). This was the self-policing mechanism Congress set up in an attempt to manage its lack of discipline and fortitude when it comes to spending issues. Yet with the January 2, 2013 deadline known to all, Congress went 14 months—not coincidentally, through the entire 2012 election cycle—and did exactly nothing about it. By December, the Beast was once again butting up against what was now a $16.4 trillion debt cap, facing expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and staring down the barrel of automatic budget cuts, all of which were issues Congress itself created. This is the “fiscal cliff” no one in Congress had the temerity to face.
And this is what I can’t understand: why were Congressional Republicans so afraid of this? My problem with the debt deal back in 2011 was that even the automatic sequestration didn’t go nearly far enough. You want to cut $1.2 trillion (really $120 billion each year for 10 years)? Fine. You want to have to shut down for awhile rather than continue to borrow insane amounts from the Chinese? Great.
But instead, just as they did in 2011, when it came time to cross bayonets and do political battle, Speaker Boehner and the GOP leadership abandoned the field. The deal they agreed to Tuesday, in an effort supposedly to deal with the District’s fiscal irresponsibility, raises taxes with essentially no corresponding spending cuts (current CBO estimates score it 10:1 taxes to cuts), and further delays any discussion of either the debt ceiling or the cuts called for by the automatic budget sequestration agreed to in 2011. In other words, once again Republicans took the bait and agreed to actual tax (again, read: spending) increases now in exchange for a promise to discuss spending cuts later. Moreover, as with anything the District does, this one is laden with totally unrelated pork; in this case, millions in special tax candy for Hollywood, NASCAR, Puerto Rican rum makers, and biofuel producers. In all, this plan will actually add some $4 trillion to the debt, again according to CBO.
I’ve seen defenders of this tell us to relax, that this is really just a return to the Clinton-era tax rates, and don’t we recall how prosperous that time was? That forgets, of course, that the 1990s were largely still benefitting from an economy that had been revived under Reagan. But more importantly, this argument really misses the point, which should be getting our fiscal house in order. It would be one thing if we were talking about matching 1994 taxes against a return to 1994 spending, but we’re not. In constant 2005 dollars, the federal budget in 1994 was a little over $1.8 trillion, versus about $3.3 trillion for fiscal 2011; we’re spending roughly twice today what we were spending under Clinton. The national debt in 1994 was under $5 trillion, less than one-third what it is today.
This week’s deal does nothing—nothing—to address this country’s budget problem. Boehner says he’s now done trying to negotiate directly with Obama, but that’s too little, too late. He’s once again given Obama what he wants in the way of raising taxes, while putting off the real issue in reliance on a false promise that real spending cuts will be discussed sometime in the future. This is the same stunt Obama pulled on him in 2011, and frankly it’s the same stunt the Democrats pulled on Reagan in 1982, and again on Bush 41 (remember “read my lips”?) in 1990.
And the engorgement of the Beast ratchets ever upward.
Fixing this problem requires having the maturity and political courage to stand up to Obama and insist on actually making significant spending cuts; not hypothetical reductions in future spending increases, but real cuts that take effect now. Including defense. Sadly, few in the GOP seem inclined to grow a backbone any time soon. Thursday morning they re-elected Boehner as Speaker, with even Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), (former?) Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former VP candidate Paul Ryan (R-WI) voting in favor. Beltway politics over principles, as usual. So I assume we’ll continue to see more of the same, which means little or no opposition from an opposition party that controls a sizeable majority in the House.