Why Are They Now?
On deficits, Republicans in Congress haven't just changed their minds—they've lost their brains.
"As Republican Members of the House of Representatives … we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives. That is why, in this era of official evasion and posturing, we offer instead a detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print."—The "Contract With America," 1995
"By the year 2002, we can have a federal government with a balanced budget or we can continue down the present path towards total fiscal catastrophe."—Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, 1995
When, in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Party to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected its leaders to one alleged core belief, and to bind themselves with equal pomp and gravity to a contradictory core belief, as the Laws of Politics and Political Winds entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they have a Pretty Good Explanation. Or So you would Think. Especially when the First Belief comes Wrapped in a pompous Document with a lot of Bullying Language about how Noble its adherents are and what Scum any opponents Must be.
There are plenty of available reasons to explain why someone might have voted for the famous Contract With America in 1995, including a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, and why today that same someone is an enthusiastic backer of President Bush's tax-cut proposal, which will take a $300 billion-plus budget deficit and push it higher. "Those pills are finally kicking in," might be one such explanation. No, on second thought, maybe the GOP is smart to avoid drawing attention to the historical contrast and to stick with the traditional politicians' philosophy that today is the first day of the rest of your re-election campaign.
Republicans aren't the only source of such fun. There is a limited amount of hilarity to be had from watching formerly or even currently wastrel Democrats as they try on the preachers' robes of frugality. But Bill Clinton pretty much ruined that joke by actually balancing the budget (OK, OK, with some help from those congressional Republicans, along with considerable hindrance and near-universal predictions of disaster). That delightful 1995 quote from Tom DeLay, now House majority leader, predicting fiscal calamity in 2002 unless the Balanced Budget Amendment is enacted, brings to mind that famous joke about the 1964 election: "They told me if I voted for Goldwater we'd soon have half a million American troops in Vietnam. So I voted for Goldwater, and they were right."
The Balanced Budget Amendment passed the House overwhelmingly in 1996 but missed the necessary two-thirds of the Senate by a single vote. After that, it faded away. Although they have controlled both Congress and the White House since 2001, the Republicans have made no serious effort to bring it up again. The BBA would have required a three-fifths supermajority in both houses for the government to spend more than it brought in each year. It would have made the Bush tax cuts—accompanied, as they are, by a rich absence of equivalent spending cuts—flatly unconstitutional. There was an exception for times of war, but the Iraq war is over and Bush's deficits are just beginning.
Republicans do give reasons for wanting to make big projected deficits even bigger. They say that tax cuts spur the economy and eventually will generate revenue to wipe out the deficits. They say that big deficits will force the government to cut spending. These arguments are contradictory and bogus. If the deficit will eliminate itself, it will not create pressure to cut spending. If tax cuts always spur so much growth that they pay for themselves, can we cut taxes to zero and still break even on revenue? If the trick stops working at some point higher than zero, how can we assume it will work for us? And if the purpose of tax cuts is to force spending cuts, why doesn't the governing party at least propose enough spending cuts to cover the cost? "I'm eating all this pie so I'll get fat and be forced to diet." Do you buy that one?
Tom DeLay thinks the real question is why anyone would oppose Bush's plan. His answer is that some critics "think the money belongs to the government instead of the people," while others "just attack everything the President proposes" and are "more interested in griping than governing." He concedes that others "say" they worry about deficits, a worry he now finds hard to believe. He and his colleagues were just as self-righteous about the Balanced Budget Amendment and just as contemptuous of anyone who opposed it. The policies come and go, utterly in conflict. But they're cocksure they're right, every time.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.