As things settle into a routine for the new 112th Congress, with the House now under Republican control, the elephant in the room is whether the GOP will have the backbone to break with history, and begin to cut federal spending systemically. Will the Republicans follow the modern US model – in which “cuts” are little more than decreases in increases – or the new model being implemented by David Cameron in the United Kingdom – across-the-board cuts. Unfortunately for many of the tea partiers who had high hopes going into this new congressional season, the early signs point to the American model, not the British.
When Nancy Pelosi assumed the post of Speaker of the House in 2007, she promised Americans there would be “no new deficit spending.” The next four years under her leadership, however, witnessed a spending spree of historic proportions. The nation’s debt grew by an astonishing $5 trillion, and now stands at an astronomical $14 trillion – a level unsustainable by any legitimate measure.
Republicans have been quick to make political hay of this fiscal profligacy. Last September’s Republican “Pledge to America” promised that, with exceptions for seniors, veterans, and troops, the GOP would “roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.” Despite exceptions that doom any subsequent effort to minor success at best, the pledge would represent at least a baby step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, that baby step already seems to have turned into the “Washington No-Step.”
According to The New York Times, GOP aides already are back peddling –claiming the $100 billion figure was “hypothetical.” With a straight face, they are asserting that, since they will be able to influence only half of the current, 2010 fiscal year, they should only be held to a standard of cutting at most a paltry $50 billion in spending.
Of course, cuts to non-defense discretionary spending do not represent a large share of the overall federal spending – about $549 billion out of a $3.7 trillion budget. Needless to say, this is uninspiring. But Republicans have painted themselves into a corner by taking major spending items such as defense and entitlements, off the table.
Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister David Cameron is actually implementing the type of fiscally-responsible budget those in Washington are afraid to even whisper – across-the-board cuts to every program (up to 20%); and immediate cuts to the national bureaucracy.
For Britain’s more timid counterparts in our nation’s Capitol, it should be pointed out that other countries that actually have implemented tough austerity measures such as Cameron is undertaking, not only survived, but thrived – Australia and New Zealand come to mind. The sky did not fall and, in the case of Australia, its pre-2008 efforts to tackle its then-huge national debt, allowed it to withstand the economic downturn with barely a hiccup to its economy.
U.S. political leaders, even those with an “R” after their name, do not yet appear ready to take the hard steps and the tough choices. Rather than understanding that across-the-board cuts are the only way over the long term to restore fiscal stability given our current debt level, American politicians try vainly to propose cuts to certain programs but not others; thereby ensuring a never-ending, and ultimately not winnable dispute over spending priorities.
It’s been a long time since anyone could point to the United Kingdom as an example for us to follow as a path toward fiscal responsibility. That time now has arrived. Unfortunately, the Republican Party nationally appears too rooted in the past to take advantage of the “Cameron example” and break the mold. Perhaps we could bring Cameron is as our new Debt-Reduction Czar.
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code