BIRNBAUM: Politicians dodge deficit reality, invite disaster
Everyone knows - and the midterm elections were testimony to the fact - that Washington politicians are not great listeners. But sometimes they don’t listen even to themselves.
Over the past week, they’ve been saying two contradictory things and haven’t given any indication that they’ve noticed.
Inspired by proposals from President Obama’s debt commission, members of both parties have been effusive about the need to cut the federal budget deficit - and ultimately the national debt - by trillions of dollars. Republicans and Democrats on the 18-member panel voted to trim Social Security, reduce federal spending and raise taxes. Politicians who are not on the commission also vowed to back a similar combination of hard-hitting measures - and soon.
At the same time, members of Congress took a series of votes that go in the opposite direction. They voted to increase the deficit by tens of billions of dollars by extending current tax rates, which are set to rise at the start of next year. They have also agreed with President Obama to prevent other tax increases from taking effect when a wide variety of tax benefits expire and will extend soon-to-end unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. That combination will add hundreds of billions to the deficit next year.
Such silliness brings to mind a bawdy old joke whose punch line is, “Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Credulous Washington insiders have chosen to believe the political rhetoric and ignore the facts - but they shouldn’t. Talk is cheap. Actions matter. Open your eyes and see.
Here is the situation as it really stands: The debt commission failed to approve its ambitious deficit-reduction plan. It fell short of the 14 votes it needed to force Congress to take up its proposal. The commissioners’ brave words - and even their votes - were, in the end, meaningless.
Only what Congress does will make a difference. And with Mr. Obama’s blessing, it’s well on the way to making the federal deficit much wider than it otherwise would have been. Whatever your view of the wisdom of extending low tax rates, the result of extending them and other breaks - along with the continued funding of unemployment compensation - is to add to the debt problem, not shave it back.
When it comes to taking a stand against red ink, therefore, the politicians are saying one thing and doing another - the old bait and switch.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, tries to justify this deception by asserting that short-term profligacy is a good idea because it stimulates economic activity. Widening the deficit now is OK, he says, because the economy still needs the boost that deficit spending brings. When joblessness eases and the economy begins to grow more robustly, he contends, lawmakers will “pivot” to austerity.
In the meantime, he is saying, “Trust me.” When the time is ripe, lawmakers will begin to dismantle the array of popular spending programs and tax goodies that they so far have been unwilling to curb.
If you buy that line, I have a bridge to sell you.
Left to their own devices, politicians will never take away the tax breaks, spending programs and federal largesse on which they have been feasting for decades. If they aren’t doing anything now - in the wake of a wave election in which voters expressed outrage over government run amok - they won’t do anything unless a crisis forces them.
Apparently, no one in Washington has learned anything from the spanking voters gave Democrats during the elections last month. Voters do not want more of the same. But that’s exactly what they’re getting.
Congress is playing a dangerous game. Promises are not what voters want. They’ve had too many of those.
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