published Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Costs that haunt the tea party

Among the political cross currents stirring the criticism of many Americans lately is the sense that government spending in Washington is out of control. The tens of thousands of protesters in the Fox News-promoted, Republican-organized "tea party" anti-tax movement -- including a number of Tennesseans -- who gathered in the nation's capital last Sunday were there specifically to raise the alarm against new spending that they don't agree with.

Many would empathize with their purported root complaint of exploding federal debt. Our question is what took the conservative faction so long to become concerned about uncontrolled deficit spending. Why, precisely, were they so blasé about the stunning deficit spending in the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II presidencies, during which most of the current debt was created and put in the fiscal pipeline that is still spewing it out.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, riding the failed "supply-side" tax-cut policies, ramped up federal debt enormously during in their terms. It took the fiscal discipline of President Bill Clinton and his tax-increase medicine (mainly on the rich so favored by the Reagan-Bush I tax policies) to reverse the growing federal debt. Indeed, President Clinton produced, from 1997 to 2001, the only budget surpluses recorded in Washington in nearly 50 years.

George W. Bush destroyed those favorable surplus policies as soon as took control, with full support from Vice President Cheney, who famously growled, "deficits don't matter," and then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who expressed concern about getting the federal debt level too low.

Under the Bush II tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, plus his "off-budget" spending (meaning more borrowed money on top of his tax cuts) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last president ran annual average budget deficits of approximately $550 billion in each of the past completed eight fiscal years. His deficit spending in those years -- quietly lubricated by five increases in the national debt ceiling, all but one by Republican-controlled congresses -- jacked the national debt up from the $5.7 trillion level when he took office to more than $10 trillion near the end of 2008.

In his last budget, for the current fiscal year which began last Oct. 1, Mr. Bush added another $1.3 trillion in deficit spending, pushing the federal deficit up by more than $6 trillion on his watch. With that, George W. Bush more than doubled the federal debt, to over $11 trillion, in his eight-year tenure. Plus, he left several trillion dollars more in debt in the fiscal pipeline to wind-up the Iraq war, finish the war in Afghanistan, and rebuild and resupply the battered military following the needless Iraq debacle.

Beyond that lies the still uncounted cost of his and the GOP's grand deceit about their tax cuts for the wealthy, which amounted to $1.7 trillion for the 10 years ending next year. Mr. Bush and his GOP party never counted the post-10-year cost of their tax cuts that would pile up after 2011. But they set the rhetorical trap to keep those costs coming by constantly arguing in his second term that not making those tax cuts permanent would amount to a -- gasp -- tax increase. (And remember, they never had an offset to pay for their tax cuts; they had terminated the Clinton-era pay-as-you-go rules for new spending shortly after they took office).

The long-term costs of the Bush-GOP tax cuts were simply left for the next president to deal with. Sure enough, when Mr. Obama was putting together his first budget, for the 2009-2010 fiscal year that begins next month, GOP pressure against ending the high-end tax cuts for those with incomes above 250,000 (to help pay for stimulus tax cuts for the middle class) provoked enough opposition that he dropped the idea until next year.

President Obama, to be sure, had to add to the federal debt to shore up the economy from the epic fiscal disaster that ruptured on his predecessor's watch and swamped him when he opened the Oval Office door. The Bush Great Recession, literally almost Great Depression II, will impose additional long-term costs for years to come.

In addition, the Baby Boomer tide that will arrive in 2011, making new millions of seniors eligible for federal retirement benefits then, portends a steady new drain on Social Security and Medicare trust funds just when the government -- thanks largely to newly generated Republican debt -- will find it more difficult to manage entitlement spending and keep up with other fiscal demands.

Spending on the Pentagon, Medicare, Social Security and interest on the federal debt now consume fully 70 percent of the federal budget. President Bush seriously aggravated all those problems. Had the Clinton-Gore plan to run the federal debt down to nearly zero the past eight years remained intact, entitlement costs could be easily managed. Now, they pose a substantial problem.

Yet it is those projected entitlement costs and interest on the debt -- not any new spending by President Obama -- that actually haunt fiscal conservatives. Anger at President Obama for trying to pass health-care reform -- the element most needed to control entitlement costs -- is seriously misplaced. So is anger over the administration's efforts to patch up the Bush recession wreckage.

The grossly unfair irony here is that Glenn Beck and his legions of myopic tea-baggers have the wrong target and the wrong strategy to control the costs that scare them. It's the Bush legacy that should provoke their anger -- and prompt their support for cost-saving health care reform, which will minimize the pending health-cost drain, and which actually comes with a cost-offset, for a change.

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marymancini said...

Fantastic piece.

But the last paragraph is misguided. The targets of and the things that scare the likes of Glenn Beck are completely manufactured. They have no basis in reality so it wouldn't matter how smart or effective President Obama's policies were - they would still target him.

September 17, 2009 at 11:58 a.m.
EaTn said...

Would borrowing two hundred thousand dollars a few months ago to buy a house be considered a bad investment if the house is now doubled in value? The feds just announced that the personal wealth of Americans have grown 2 trillion dollars the past few months. That's more than double the stimulus debt.

September 17, 2009 at 4:16 p.m.
moonpie said...

Fantastic editorial.

I think a lot of these Tea Party enthusiasts are so blind with rage now that they will never be able to understand this editorial.

Others are busy causing a diversion hoping nobody will notice the truth about Republican spending.

As for health care. I'm renaming the Republican Party to the "American Insurance Lobby" or, AIL. If you want to include the "T", it would be TAIL. Either way, they're dragging America down, and making an *** of their party and dropping load of BS on the American people.

September 17, 2009 at 5:39 p.m.
moonpie said...

I sort of regret that last bit.

September 17, 2009 at 7:47 p.m.
rolando said...

I presume you are referring to YOUR "last bit" and not the editorialist's, moonpie. Yours was certainly no worse than his/her use of "tea-baggers" when referring to legitimate protesters. He/she [it is an unsigned rant] lost the argument right there.

Funny one seemed to object...says a lot about intolerance and the far-left's fallback position of shooting the messenger after calling him/her names. [And maybe kicking him a couple-three times.]

He/She even thinks the TEA Party movement is about taxes...

September 17, 2009 at 9:19 p.m.
rolando said...

Make that, " one seemed to object to the word in the editorial..."

September 17, 2009 at 9:22 p.m.
rolando said...

But the .gov was referring to the 1000 wealthiest Americans, EaTn, not the rest of us. That includes half the Congress. /chuckle. Besides, it is all nontaxable.

September 17, 2009 at 9:28 p.m.
SCOTTYM said...

OpEd, "Indeed, President Clinton produced, from 1997 to 2001, the only budget surpluses recorded in Washington in nearly 50 years."

This statement is absolutely untrue. The writer should be ashamed for not paying attention to the actual numbers, and just rattling off the propaganda.

The total national debt never decreased during the 2000's, 1990's, 80's, 70's, or 60's.

If the debt did not go down or stay exactly the same, then by definition there was no "budget surplus" involved.

The U.S.Congress did a commendable job cutting back the deficits when WJC was POTUS. They could have done better. Look for yourself.

It is abundantly clear that the total year on year debt was never equal to or less than any preceding year until you get back into the'50s.

"But the Whitehouse budget office shows a surplus" you'll say.

That is because when the government takes cash from Social Security taxes, government worker's pension deductions, and various other federal programs and spends it in the general fund, the Whitehouse does not call it debt, even though those dollars are owed, with interest, to the workers in the form of future benefits. Call it fun with numbers if it makes you feel better, I call it a lie. To be fair, the WJC administration didn't come up with this game, it's been going on a long time.

A responsible publisher should not perpetuate a Whitehouse propaganda.

September 17, 2009 at 11:44 p.m.
moonpie said...

Scotty, I would agree with part of what you say, but I've seen many congressional Republicans try to lay claim to Clinton's budget. Why would they do that?

Because, even it federal spending was not perfectly balanced, as you point out, it still was the closest we've ever had.

Also, the way the budget is reported in this manner does not vary among administrations. So still, the scoundrel's budget was the lowest.

And yes, rolando, it was MY last comment that I regret. A lame attempt at humor over-ran my good manners.

September 18, 2009 at 8:34 a.m.
Walden said...

Hey Hasden, or whoever wrote this rant. "Tea-bagger" is a pretty disgusting term. Do you know what tea-bagging is? Pretty unbecoming of someone who is supposed to be a professional. Agree with Rolando - you lost right there.

September 18, 2009 at 9:36 a.m.
Sailorman said...

moonpie said "but I've seen many congressional Republicans try to lay claim to Clinton's budget. Why would they do that?"

Because politicians generally believe the public is gullible enough to believe the propaganda. They want to snag some of the credit for themselves.

September 18, 2009 at 5:22 p.m.
moonpie said...

Point taken sailorman. When the Right lays claim to that budget, they say it was balanced. When they don't, they make the argument that Scotty makes.

They never argue for both! That's actually surprising. They treat it like it's one or the other.

That budget was still the most balanced we've had in a LONG time.

In my mind, it was an example of parties working together, something we're seeing less and less of.

September 18, 2009 at 10:01 p.m.
rolando said...

Blame it on those who deliberately, in a multitude of ways, divide us, moonpie.

September 19, 2009 at 12:07 a.m.
Lightnup said...

Editorial Board: "Barack, did you take those cookies from the cookie jar?"

Barack: "Yes, but George took some first."

Editorial Board: "Oh, Okay. Go right ahead then, take them all. We should have known it was George's fault. It always is."

September 19, 2009 at 12:38 a.m.
vtg1955 said...

Please just read the facts. Bush 1 and Reagan... huge deficits. Clinton leaves office with a surplus. Period. That cannot be denied. Bush 2... huge deficit. See a pattern? Give Obama a chance. Eight months is a short amount of time to straighten out the eight years under Bush2.

September 24, 2009 at 6:55 p.m.
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