These are difficult and troubled times.
So difficult and so troubled that the nation’s lawmakers cannot imagine a world without the false pugilism of partisan strife. This is the corroded coda of the super committee’s collapse.
The panel was meant to rise above the political discord that has defined U.S. fiscal policy since President George H.W. Bush raised taxes in 1990 (garroting his “Read my lips” pledge and spawning an unbending GOP hostility to higher federal taxes). Since then, Republicans have sought deficit reduction through spending cuts or economic growth (in the late 1990s, they were perfectly content to balance budgets with dot.com revenue and leave spending patterns virtually unchecked). Alongside them, Democrats have defended entitlement spending, branding even modest alterations to benefit or reimbursement formulas as the road to perdition. Consider: In 1995 the “destroy Medicare” proposal from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich would have slowed the rate of Medicare spending growth from 10 percent to 7.1 percent.
In the early 2000s, wars, tax cuts, spending, and entitlements marched along unchecked. Republicans added a Medicare prescription-drug benefit (Medicare Part D) in 2003, expanding the scope of the spending state. Under President George W. Bush, spending rose from 18.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2001 to 20.7 percent in 2008.
I will never forget the time in 2007 when I asked then-Sen. Barack Obama if he would, as president, require offsetting spending cuts to pay for the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthy (which he vowed to eliminate … oops) or Medicare Part D. Without skipping a beat, Obama told me, “No.” I reminded him that across Iowa he had called both Bush policies irresponsible because they hadn’t been paid for, “just added to the nation’s credit card.” I asked Obama why he didn’t intend to pay for the cuts to save the national credit card. He calmly said that it wasn’t up to him to pay for “existing programs” if he became president—that was someone else’s irresponsibility, not his. His hands were clean.
Then came President Obama’s burst of new nondefense discretionary spending (up 18 percent from 2008 to 2012), allocations of bailout funds (approved in the final days of Bush’s presidency), and the deficit-financed $830 billion stimulus. Add this spending to a grinding economic crash that has reduced revenue flows to levels not seen since 1950. Back then, revenue as a percentage of GDP was 14.4 percent—precisely what it is estimated to be this year. Here’s the bad news: This year’s revenue-to-GDP percentage will be in the 14 percent range for the third straight year. This is unprecedented in the post-World War II era. Only in 1949 and 1950 did the ratio hit 14 percent, reflecting a brief recessionary period and continued economic adjustments to a peacetime economy. The troubling historical fact is that the average revenue-to-GDP percentage since 1950 is 17.8 percent.
In other words, we have higher spending, lower revenue, and entrenched political gridlock. The super committee was supposed to reverse all of these realities. In retrospect, it was a ridiculous concept—absurdist humor befitting Monty Python. That many believed it might work tells you all you may ever want to know about the warped nature of budget politics. The triumph of gullibility over realism is the super committee’s true gift to Washington.
Some will cast this struggle as a “fight” over the role of government. Twaddle. Real fights, you see, require risk and the willingness to risk the known for a better, more abundant unknown. Real fights require nerve and vision and a sense of transforming the impossible into the possible. It is the rarest form of human alchemy, and it defines the outer limits of political might—not to rule by force but to rule through consensus derived from persuasion. But first, you must see. Then you must risk.
Today’s partisan fights, children, give us none of this. Partisanship today is more numerical than ideological. Fights between parties now almost never turn on a bold, sweeping idea. Instead, they are defined by their narrowness of numerical majorities and epoxy-like attachment to the levers of power.
Could House Speaker John Boehner approve a “big” deficit deal of $4 trillion over 10 years when the corridor gossip runs rife with tea party insurgents imagining a new, harder-line leadership team if the GOP keeps the House in 2012? No. Could Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid OK a deal of that size and the large-scale entitlement cuts it would require with 21 Democrats up for reelection next year and a base eager to extract higher taxes from the “other 1 percent?” No.
Nothing risked. Nothing gained. The alchemists failed. The base metals remain. There is no magic way to the pot of gold. These are difficult and troubled times.
This article appears in the November 22, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.