Apparently concerned that many of their most ardent political supporters are unhappy when Washington functions well, many Republican leaders, including those who helped put together the recent compromise to keep the government funded throughout next year, are threatening once again to refuse to raise the debt limit unless they get major concessions.
This is disappointing.
I had thought after virtually all leaders of economic activity in America, including strong Republican supporters in the business community, made it clear that even threatening to prevent America from paying all of our debts on time would be economically damaging, the Republican leadership got the point.
In addition to being an economically foolish proposal, this threat also lacks any moral justification. The argument is, from Rep. Paul Ryan, for example, that President Obama and congressional Democrats must give the Republicans something in return for their allowing America to pay our bills. The implicit assumption here is that Democrats are responsible for the debts, and we are asking Republicans to pay them as a favor to us.
Ryan voted to incur much more of the current debt than I did. He voted for the war in Iraq; I voted against it. He voted for President Bush’s prescription drug program; I voted against it. He voted for the Bush tax cuts; I voted against them. It is true there are areas in the federal budget when I am for spending more than he is, but the fact is – unfortunately, from my standpoint – I have been much less successful in pushing the bills that I support that would have added to the debt than he has been. So the argument that my former Democratic congressional colleagues will owe him if he agrees to pay the debt that he did so much to run up is nonsense.
In fact, the whole notion that conservatives are more concerned about fiscal responsibility than the Democrats is based on myth.
In recent years the two sides have generally been equally supportive of government spending. The difference between us is not on how much to spend, but on how to spend it, and whether or not to raise the taxes to pay for it.
On the first point, it is the Republicans who have been the strongest supporters of continuing increases in the largest single item in the discretionary budget: defense. Mitt Romney’s attack on Obama during the presidential campaign was as much for failing to spend more on weapons as for spending too much in helping cities. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, leading conservatives, have been even more critical of the president for spending too little on the military – for example, for not continuing to keep a significant American military presence in Iraq, for not intervening militarily in Syria, and for not having done more militarily in Afghanistan.
In addition, Republicans have pushed hard for increased spending for the Border Patrol, for immigration enforcement and other security measures. I am not arguing here that those are wrong, although I believe some of them were excessive. I am simply pointing out that they cost money, and that asking Ryan to pay for them is hardly an imposition on him, given that he supported them.
The tax question is also very revealing. It is entirely legitimate for conservatives to favor reducing government revenue as a way to force cuts in popular programs. President Reagan’s budget director David Stockman made this clear 30 years ago; he understood that many programs, like Social Security, Medicare, housing for the elderly and aid to local police departments, have wide support, so he argued that the only way to stop them was to reduce government spending so we could not afford them. The phrase many conservatives gave to this approach under Reagan was “starving the beast.”
But while it is entirely conservatives’ right to express this ideological preference by voting for serious tax cuts, it is logically impossible to advocate this policy while maintaining that cutting the deficit is your highest priority. The argument that substantial tax cuts of this sort do not add to the deficit because they generate more economic activity has long been recognized as a fantasy – repudiated by most responsible conservatives’ economists – and the results are clear: Deficits increased substantially after Bush successfully pushed for two wars and several large tax cuts in the early years of his presidency.
Many conservatives complain, correctly, that many of us liberals would rather add to the deficit than inflict serious pain on poor children or deny older people with inadequate incomes appropriate medical care. My response is that they are also prepared to put deficit reduction behind their ideological objectives, such as substantial tax reduction and a larger, more interventionist military. And politicians who supported trillion-dollar tax cuts, a trillion-dollar war in Iraq and the continued expenditure of hundreds of billions indefinitely in Afghanistan have no standing to lecture me on fiscal responsibility because I oppose cutting the cost-of-living increase for low-income 80 year olds.
So they emphatically cannot claim that their willingness to avoid serious economic disruption by honoring America’s commitment to pay back the money we have borrowed is somehow a favor they are doing for those of us who, in fact, opposed many of the measures they adopted that required that very borrowing.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
— Special to the Telegram