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BIRNBAUM: Sounding the fiscal klaxon

Tea Partiers may be angry, but their message is on-target

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Critics have accused the Tea Party of everything from racism to radicalism, but they miss the larger point. Tea Party adherents are angry mostly about the size of government and its mounting debt. The movement, at its core, expresses a deep and widespread dread about what is in fact a real problem that neither political party has been willing to address.

Love them or hate them, the people who align themselves with the Tea Party are sure massive borrowing will have to stop at some point or disaster will ensue. And do you know what? They are correct. Democrats and Republicans ignore this sentiment at their peril.

Federal budget hawks have been declaring since the 1980s that the sky will fall (in a fiscal sense) and, to be fair, so far it hasn't. Nevertheless, the Tea Party movement reflects a growing belief that something terrible finally is about to happen. They know it in their bones.

Such instincts can be ignored easily. But more and more, economists agree. Government represents half the gross domestic product (GDP) in an astounding number of countries and, here in the United States, the debt burden has reached what has to be a dangerous level.

Average citizens don't know the numbers, but they do understand that something is very wrong. Such an instinct must be heeded by serious leaders of the nation or they will have to bear the consequences.

Indeed, something will have to give. The only question is when. The smart politician will embrace this inevitability - of less spending and higher taxes - and also find creative ways to do both without cratering the entire government.

Skeptics have seen fear-mongering over the budget deficit before. They can point to many political careers that have been ruined by excessive admonitions about the threat of government profligacy. Recall the disastrous presidential campaigns of Bob Dole and Ross Perot.

But trillion-dollar annual budget deficits are absolutely new and legitimately frightening. The number is scary not just in an absolute way but also in comparison to other periods not long ago.

In 1980, and for decades previously, the ratio of public and private debt to GDP was roughly 1.5. Now, that ratio is 3.6, a breathtaking acceleration of debt burden that is hard for the experts to defend. There is evidence that the system is having trouble taking on more debt - that the limit has been reached. If so, calamity - somewhere - almost certainly will occur unless the trend is reversed.

So far, neither major party has made a serious demand for such a reversal, though, to be fair, Republicans have come close recently. Whether politicians know it or not, that kind of plan will soon become a necessity and not just political pandering.

The mainstream of both major political parties is nowhere close to accepting this situation. Democrats want to raise taxes, but on a narrow swath of people (the rich) and in a way that undermines economic growth.

Republicans talk about cutting spending, but they also press for deficit-widening tax cuts in the same breath. That's fiscal nonsense.

Neither party is seriously discussing the need to pare entitlements - the programs that go up automatically each year, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Without real reform in those programs, no government contraction is possible.

Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, is the only official in government who sees the wave coming and is rushing to avoid being swamped. He is trying to cut $100 billion from his own bloated budget in farsighted ways before narrow-minded lawmakers grab the ax for their own provincial purposes.

Everyone should wish Mr. Gates well and hope his cutbacks are an acceptable solution rather than just the beginning of slashing.

Congress is in the middle of the pre-election silly season, and cutbacks or tax increases are not in the offing. Attracting votes through demagoguery, by all appearances, is the lawmakers' complete focus now.

The post-election lame-duck session, if history is guide, will be more of the same. Not much of substance will be handled before year's end.

But thereafter, with perhaps dozens of Tea Party activists in Congress, fiscal responsibility will again be on the agenda. If the polls are an indication of what occurs on Election Day, Tea Partiers will be able to wield real clout because of their numbers on Capitol Hill.

Their language will seem strange compared to the rhetoric of status-quo politicians, but their principles will have an impact.

Like families, the government cannot keep spending without matching income, they will say. A simple truth, no doubt, but it's also a bit of wisdom that a democratic form of government is allowing our leaders to hear.

They should listen.

Jeffrey Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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