Last week’s vote in Congress to avoid a potential fiscal calamity set up by previous congressional action and put in play by the inability or unwillingness of that body to act earlier, has highlighted once more just how radical many representatives in our nation’s Republican Party have become. It also shows just how responsible our country’s leaders and those who followed them are for the financial situation in which the United States now finds itself. Some background concerning how the so-called “fiscal cliff” scenario befell the nation is worth recalling briefly.
President George W. Bush (R) entered office in January 2001 with the federal government budget in surplus for the first time since 1969. He soon called for broad and substantial tax cuts and these were supported by both parties and enacted. The result represented a very significant drain on the national Treasury and the President and GOP, who led the call for tax reductions, did not simultaneously seek large expenditure savings to offset those revenue losses. Deficits began to mount almost immediately as a result.
Meanwhile, terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and Pentagon in September 2001 and President Bush, sanctioned by Congress, elected to begin a war in Afghanistan to root out those he argued were responsible for that tragedy. The resulting conflict, which continues today, was (and is) largely financed with debt. Congress has supported the war, but no strong initiative to pay for it via tax increases has arisen in either legislative chamber and the Republican Party particularly, did not propose any such action under President’s Bush’s leadership. The President and his advisors also made the case that the United States should invade Iraq and undertake a second war concurrently with that in Afghanistan, on the grounds that the leader of that nation, Saddam Hussein, had acquired dangerous weapons, an assertion later determined to be unfounded, and that effort too was financed with deficit spending and debt.
By 2007 the United States had also fallen into its longest-lived recession since the Great Depression and efforts by the Bush, and later Obama, administrations to prevent that crisis from worsening increased the national deficit still further. The recession and the prolonged joblessness that has accompanied it exacerbated this situation and created still larger deficits since neither Bush nor Obama thought it prudent to aggravate the nation’s economic woes by reducing federal expenditures during the slowdown. Republicans in Congress, however, once Obama had entered office, criticized his efforts to prop up the economy as both wasteful and ineffective. Most economists argued both charges were specious and in any case, they flatly contradicted policies pursued by the Republican Party only months earlier.
Importantly, the deficit that arose from the combination of these policy choices and circumstances did not occur because President Obama was personally more profligate than his predecessor or as the result of a huge drain wrought by non-existent deficits in Medicare or Social Security. They were instead the deliberate consequence of decisions by elected leaders, led by a GOP President and legislators, to reduce federal revenues while simultaneously markedly increasing national spending. This voluntary trajectory was made much worse by the exigencies of a near depression.
Considering this policy evolution and context helps the observer situate current GOP House Members’ claims that the deficit demands immediate and draconian reductions in national entitlement programs, which they point to as the cause of the country’s fiscal difficulties. While these initiatives doubtless require changes for the long-term they are not responsible for the nation’s present fiscal deficit. Again, today’s shortfall is the product of purposeful policy choices and of financial recession (however occasioned) and not of entitlement spending. To argue otherwise is either to misunderstand profoundly the nation’s current situation or to misuse that circumstance to press for policies not attainable except by misleadingly suggesting the present situation demands them.
What may be said without claiming to understand GOP legislator psychology, is that a substantial majority of Republican House members have now loudly demonstrated their willingness both to pretend that their Party’s own actions had nothing to do with creating the country’s fiscal circumstances and to hold the nation hostage to their ideological predilections by either subjecting it to possible default or to economic recession, or both to achieve them. Those adopting these remarkably imprudent stands have justified them by claiming they are a necessary antidote to an expenditure juggernaut now bankrupting the country. The reality is that lawmakers elected to pursue the policies, fiscal and otherwise, now governing the nation and these may be changed to address the country’s needs without sacrificing its aged, sick, disabled or poor citizens in the bargain. Rather than proselytizing fear and panic and practicing blackmail to attain their ideological aims, perhaps these same congresspersons should consider alternative scenarios of taxation and expenditure reduction that might constitute prudent action in the face of the nation’s economic situation. But such may be too much to ask of individuals elected arguing the sky is falling for reasons unrelated to reality. This situation raises the question, remarked by many observers today, of whether the nation’s legislature can any longer govern. At present, and at least for the House of Representatives, the evidence surely favors the naysayers.