- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2011

After the riots in Athens, the Greek authorities decided to enact laws to deal with their obvious prob- lems. The laws, which treat rich and poor alike for the first time, have been seen as harsh. The name of the legislator who wrote the laws is a man called Draco. The date is believed to be 621 B.C. And more than 2,600 years later, the adjectival form of his name - draconian - is still tossed around here in Washington anytime someone proposes real budget cuts.

Of course, most of the Washington hands who hurl around the “draconian” charge probably do not know that Draco’s laws were considered “just” according to Aristotle. For the first time in Athenian law, the codes were written down so that even poor people could know what was legal and what was illegal - thus they could avoid inadvertently breaking the law. Also, for the first time, the government took responsibility for enforcing punishment for crimes - thus ending the need for vendettas.

The only “draconian” part of Draco’s laws was the punishment for their violation: death for all violations, whether petty theft or murder. The reason for the “harsh” punishment, Plutarch explained in his “Life of Solon”:

“It is said that Draco himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.” As William Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar,” “This was a man!”

As we enter budget season in Washington this week, unless the Republican proposals include a death sentence for their violations, no one should get away with hurling the charge of “draconian cuts.” The charge is prefabricated and historically illiterate.

Actually, considering the unconscionable level of deficit-passing recidivism practiced in Washington for decades now, the “draconian” punishment has a certain appeal - at least for those of us of the old school.

The Scots also have a fine tradition of firm enforcement of the law. According to a Scottish proverb that would seem to have been inspired by the draconian spirit: “Hang a thief when he’s young, and he’ll not steal when he’s old.”

One certainly cannot argue with the logic of the proverb - although given the level of theft at the time, so many hangings may have adversely affected population growth.

Lamentably, capital punishment is not on the table for discussion in our Capitol - only the technically noncriminal matters of spending less of the people’s money and borrowing less of China’s money. The only genuinely “draconian” policy in Washington is running up the multitrillion-dollar annual defi-cits that constitute a death sentence on our children’s and grandchildren’s prosperity and liberty.

The thing to be condemned should be draconian deficits, not draconian deficit cuts.

From the early reports of the White House’s proposed 2012 budget, they will be more subject to the former than the latter charge.

According to The Washington Post, quoting the administration (don’t take my word for it): “The White House proposal, outlined Friday by a senior administration official, would barely put a dent in deficits that congressional budget analysts say could approach $12 trillion through 2021. But the policies would stabilize borrowing, the administration official said, while reversing the trend of ramping up spending.”

When a ship is sinking, one might consider actually pumping out more water than is rushing in. But the White House is content to “stabilize” these draconian deficits it contributed to during the past two years. How nice the alliterative phrase “draconian deficits” sounds.

Even worse, the administration’s budget proposal - which also includes tax increases and defense cuts - justifies even more spending - what it mislabels “investing” - with the benign-sounding promotion, “It cuts what we can’t afford, to pay for what we cannot do without.”

Huh? It doesn’t “cut what we can’t afford,” because the administration-proposed budget still spends more than $1 trillion beyond what we take in.

So to actually “cut what we can’t afford,” the White House would have to deliver a balanced budget, or at least a deficit of less than 3 percent of gross domestic product, neither of which it does.

Conversely, the new spending is not for things “we cannot do without.” In fact, we have done without these spending programs for the entire 235 years of our existence as a country.

Perhaps because of my attention to correct word usage, I can be accused of verbal prissiness. But if we can’t gain sufficient precision in our words, we are unlikely to gain sufficient precision in our deficit reductions. And that is the alleged object of both branches of our government this season.

Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.