DEAN: Clinton, Gingrich and the balanced budget myth

Credit claimed for something that didn’t happen

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Bill Clinton and his allies like to claim credit for creating budget surpluses in the last three complete fiscal years of his administration. Now Newt Gingrich is claiming credit for the same accomplishment.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gingrich admittedly have a lot in common, but when two notoriously self-promoting politicians like these start blowing their own horns to the same tune, it’s worth taking a closer look - well worth it, as it turns out.

According to the Bureau of Public Debt of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the federal debt actually increased in each of those years. In other words, the supposed surplus was never realized. Can it be a myth? Can it be the “surplus” was just another gimmick that Washington uses because it makes up its own rules? Let’s look even closer.

As anyone unfortunate enough to work in the private sector understands, there is a huge difference between a budget and actual results. The first is an aspiration, the second is reality. But Washington plays a different game. Congress invents its own rules, uses those rules to prepare a budget and then passes it in the form of legislation. Then they say it is real. Whether it actually is to the rest of the country just doesn’t matter.

It turns out the budget scored a surplus only because it borrowed money from the “trust” funds that secure entitlement payments, such as Social Security and Medicare. Since, in the real world, those funds would be considered obligated, those intergovernmental borrowings actually increase the federal debt. They are included in the debt figure that is published by the Bureau of Public Debt.

Mr. Gingrich aspires to represent the legacy of the founder of the Republican Party, the 16th president of the United States. Nearly 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln described our government in historic terms: “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Perhaps that is now just another myth.

It is hard to apply that description to a government that invents and operates by its own rules, while applying a different set of rules to ordinary people. It is hard to describe that way a government that justifies its programs by using accounting gimmicks and tricks that would land ordinary people in jail. It is also hard to describe that way a government that makes it a crime for ordinary people to lie to it, but then suffers no sanction when it lies to them.

Warren L. Dean Jr. is a partner at Thompson Coburn and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center.

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