Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Freshman GOP delusions

A freshman GOP congressman's attempt to differentiate a government shutdown today from the shutdown in 1995 is a study in distinctions without a difference  -- and in differences that cut against his argument. From a Jennifer Steinhauer story in yesterday's NYT:
“I don’t believe now and 1995 are similar times,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a freshman from Pennsylvania. “Back then it was more about how to balance the budget. Now it is about how to keep the country from going broke. Unemployment was much lower than now. The debt was 5 trillion. Now it is 14 trillion. In 1995 the Congress wanted to get its house in order. Now it’s the American people that want that, and that’s the only reason why we are here.” 
Let's take these assertions one at a time:

  • Now it is about how to keep the country from going broke.  No. Cuts to discretionary spending are a bite on the ass of the structural deficit -- more so than in 1995, when health care inflation was much lower than today and defense spending had already been radically cut. Fully funding the Affordable Care Act and allowing the government to throw its resources behind full implementation of the Act's cost control measures would have a far greater impact on the structural deficit .Oh, and raising taxes back to Clinton-era levels. That's what "kept the country from going broke" after 1993.
  • Unemployment was much lower than now. Too true. And Moody's economist Mark Zandi, former advisor to the McCain campaign, estimates that the House GOP cuts would cost the economy 700,000 jobs; Goldman Sachs estimates that implementing the House GOP's $61 billion in spending cuts would shave GDP growth by 25.
  • The debt was 5 trillion. Now it's 14 trillion. True, and worrisome. But the difference is exaggerated. This year, the debt is projected to be 72% of GDP. In 1995, it was 66% of GDP.  True, in 1995 it was trending the right way -- though you'd never have known it by listening to the Gingrichites. But that was because Clinton and the Democrats raised taxes to a level that could sustain the Federal government in 1993 -- without a single House Republican vote. Just like today's GOP in response to Obama's stimulus, the Republicans cast the tax hikes in Clinton's 1993 budget bill as the end of capitalism as we know it.
  • In 1995 the Congress wanted to get its house in order. Now it’s the American people that want that.  Uh huh...the Gingrich class didn't believe it had a mandate from the voters, after running on the Contract with America (which proposed a Constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget unless sanctioned by a three-fifths vote in both houses of Congress) and gaining 54 House seats and the Senate. That's why they shut the government down before compromising on their drastic spending cuts  -- it was just a matter of making the House function properly, rather than a gigantic play to sell the public on spending cuts as a moral equivalent of war.
The real reason 1995 and today are not "similar times" is that the Clinton presidency was preceded by that of the fiscally responsible George H.W. Bush, while Obama was preceded by H.W.'s radically destructive son.  As of 1995, Bush Sr. and Clinton had cut defense spending from 20-25% from the peak of the Reagan buildup, and they had passed through Democratic Congresses more than $1 trillion in deficit-reducing packages of tax hikes and spending cuts, in 1990 and 1993.

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