In the back of my closet hangs a pair of “give-up pants” with an elastic waist and tie string, the last refuge of a holiday calorie binger. I thought of them as I watched our leaders celebrate the recent two-year budget deal as an example of responsible compromise. I beg to differ. The term compromise requires that both (or many) sides make significant concessions in order to resolve a dispute. Instead by my reading, it looks like both sides threw their belts away and dug into the Treasury.
I am not smart enough to know if, as Dick Cheney remarked, that deficits no longer matter. This 48-month agreement comes at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.37 trillion and piles onto the national debt an astounding $320 billion, meaning that 25% of the US annual budget goes to paying off the debt.
It is like the entire country is on a payday loan!
As a young congressional aide, I participated in legislative campaign that resulted in the Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974, which established a process for control of national spending.
Advocates saw this process as a way to discipline spending and stop the impoundment of congressional appropriations by President Richard Nixon.
Impoundment simply meant the failure of a president to spend funds that would obviously be wasted, a practice the executive had employed going back to Jefferson. But as in all matters, Nixon took it too far as he stopped spending on tens of billions of programs he did not favor, challenging Congress’ power of the purse written into the Constitution.
Budget committees were created in the House and Senate and staffed with economists, accountants and statisticians who provided the expertise to compete with the president’s Bureau of the Budget. Early committee chairs such as Al Ullman, D-Ore., and Brockman “Brock” Adams, D-Wash., cracked the whip and succeeded in assembling disciplined budgets that earned the backing of Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and were approved in a timely fashion.
But in Washington there is always the next day, and spending discipline soon began falling through the cracks in the budget process: War spending, for example, was not counted.
Nonetheless over subsequent decades, there have been persistent attempts to restrict spending by installing caps on domestic and military appropriations, the most notable conceived by Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., and passed in 1985. Under the plan, hard limits were placed on each program: if exceeded, the money would be sequestered, which sounded a lot like the impoundments by Nixon that started the budget battle between the executive and Congress in the first place.
Only twice in the last half-century have presidents risen above their political interests to solve crucial spending and inflation crises, and both were defeated after one term.
First was President Jimmy Carter, who was greeted in office by a legacy of easy money and sharply rising oil prices caused by OPEC’s embargo on the U.S.
With inflation out of control, the president sacrificed his reelection by appointing to the Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, who shut down the money supply and rescued the dollar at the cost of a recession.
Two decades later, President George H.W. Bush redoubled his reputation as a patriot by agreeing with congressional Democrats to raise taxes in order to halt a deficit crisis, an act that sparked primary opposition in his reelection campaign, the rise of independent Ross Perot, and his own ultimate defeat.
Notwithstanding the popular belief that one-term presidents are historically unimportant, historians may well revisit the era and award both Carter and Bush very high marks for fiscal management.
Americans of my generation have been told many times that the old rules of economics have changed only to awaken after a financial bubble to learn that they do not.
Somebody always pays the piper. History suggests that this period of low joblessness and expensive stocks will end, as always it does.
We can only hope that our much-admired but flawed capitalist system will be protected yet again by emerging leaders who rate the country’s future over their own narrow interests. They might even be awarded with victory.