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May 18, 2011 1:05 PM ‘Deficits make it easier to say no’

By Steve Benen

Paul Krugman flags this piece published by The Hill on Feb. 5, 2003. The excerpt sheds quite a light on the ongoing fight over deficit reduction.

As President Bush sent his budget to Capitol Hill Monday, a split opened among congressional Republicans between those who are still deficit hawks and an increasing number, including top leaders, who no longer see deficits as the touchstone of fiscal probity.

Confronted with projected deficits until fiscal 2007, senior GOP lawmakers are backing away from long-standing rhetoric about the government’s duty to live within its means.

The switch — whether from conviction, circumstance, or both — is bringing charges of hypocrisy from Democrats.

Some lawmakers view the existence of deficits as a useful tool to keep spending down.

“I came to the House as a real deficit hawk, but I am no longer a deficit hawk,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). “I’ll tell you why. I had to spend the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no.” [emphasis added]

The recent history has largely been forgotten, but when the Bush era began 10 years ago, there was no deficit. Clinton had bequeathed a large surplus and had already begun paying off the national debt. Projections showed that the debt was on track to be paid off entirely — for the first time in nearly two centuries — in roughly a decade.

But that was before Republicans decided they “had to spend the surpluses.” Deficits weren’t an accidental outcome of a misguided policy; they were a deliberate choice. GOP officials feared that the existence of surpluses would lead Democrats to want to invest in public services and national priorities, and Republicans would have trouble saying, “We can’t afford it,” when in fact, they could afford it.

So, Republicans created a fiscal mess on purpose.

Remarkably, all of them changed their minds, simultaneously, right after Democrats won in 2008. Those who created the deficits decided it was imperative that Democrats clean up the mess.

And before the right starts saying, “It doesn’t matter how we got here; it only matters what we do about it now,” that’s nonsense. Accountability matters. Credibility matters. Responsibility matters. When those who screw up deliberately and then demand that they alone know what they’re talking about, it matters.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • kevo on May 18, 2011 1:12 PM:

    The Republicans have been involved in redistributing wealth upward for the past 30 years!

    Economic abuse of common people has been a pillar of Republican policy since Ronald Reagan told us his policy would trickle down! In the ensuing years we've actually been the recipients of the tinkle on policy where Republicans tell us it's only raining when they continue to urinate on our backs! -Kevo

  • Steve LaBonne on May 18, 2011 1:15 PM:

    Many people pointed this out when Obama caved on extending the Bush tax cuts. By keeping revenues at such an inadequate level he handed the full-of-santorum types a major weapon this year. One of his worst decisions IMHO.

  • pmc6 on May 18, 2011 1:16 PM:

    It's worse than that, Steve. Not only did the Republicans cause a huge financial deficit mess, but they also caused the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. It's a double-whammy - huge deficits and the sort of conditions where economics dictates that the government spend to stave-off a full-blown depression.

  • howard on May 18, 2011 1:21 PM:

    steve, just to fill out your history: it's not just that the "surplus" was a problem, george bush ran, in 2000, on the concept that the surplus was a sign that the government was "overcharging" you. he did a whole little shtick with 4 dollar bills on stage about how he was going to protect the lockbox and do this and that and still give everyone back one of those 4 dollars.

  • martin on May 18, 2011 1:24 PM:

    Accountability matters. Credibility matters. Responsibility matters. When those who screw up deliberately and then demand that they alone know what they’re talking about, it matters.

    Sadly, no.

  • am on May 18, 2011 1:25 PM:

    One person, who is no longer in congress. One time. Nearly ten years ago.

    Convincing!

  • c u n d gulag on May 18, 2011 1:27 PM:

    We are now a 3rd rate 3rd world Banana Republic thanks to Banana Republicans.

    And still, they get reelected.

    After being drawn and quatered, their shining skulls should be on pikes all across the country for what they've done to it - accidentally or ON PURPOSE!

    And CAPTCHA's skull should be right up there with them.

  • Roger the Cabin Boy on May 18, 2011 1:35 PM:

    Santorum was a Senator? I thought Santorum was "The frothy mix of [Censored] and [Censored] that is sometimes the byproduct of [Censored]". I guess I should stop believing everything I read on the intertubes.

  • Roddy McCorley on May 18, 2011 1:57 PM:

    Um, guys? This is exactly what Grover Norquist means when he says "Starve the beast." Those are his own words, not some lefty blogger's glib paraphrasing, by the way. And he's been employing that phrase for decades. One can, I suppose, make the argument that Norquist does not speak for the Republican party. However, there is no denying that Norquist speaks to the Republican Party.

  • SYSPROG on May 18, 2011 2:09 PM:

    Oh c'mon. This is how 'they roll'...Spend the surpluses, cry about the country, elect a Democrat, whine and snivel about THEM spending too much while they try to pay down the debt, the GOP then takes credit for paying it down/creating a surplus, THEY get elected,spend the surpluses, cry about the country, elect a Democrat, whine and snivel about THEM spending too much while they try to pay down the debt, the GOP then takes credit for paying it down/creating a surplus, THEY get elected,spend the surpluses, cry about the country, elect a Democrat, whine and snivel about THEM spending too much while they try to pay down the debt, the GOP then takes credit for paying it down/creating a surplus, THEY get elected and on and on and on it goes.

  • jjm on May 18, 2011 2:25 PM:

    The only thing they care about is blocking Obama and democrats from making a real difference in where the revenue stream of the federal government is directed.

    To them, it absolutely MUST go nowhere except into corporate coffers -- and from there into their own pockets.

    They are absolutely shameless, treasonous and vile.

    Today, Chuck Todd claimed that THE reason Obama wants the debt limit raised is because, as a 'millionaire' whose investments are in T-bills, the Obamas' personal fortune would be harmed. On TV. On NBC. Without apology. The DIRECTOR OF NEWS AT NBC!

    Unbelievable. Yet it shows how far Republicans (and clearly Todd is on their side) S-t-r-e-t-c-h to try to damage a president who is pretty hard to hurt. (Not to mention the implied snootiness toward ANY investor who would be so dumb as to invest in their own country rather than in multinational derivatives to make quick killings at others' expense.)

    Traitors one and all.

  • FRP on May 18, 2011 2:59 PM:

    Talk about foolish , investing in T Bonds ! When one of the wise would be speculating , with seventy percent of oil purchases now determined to be owned by non productive contracts , which are only held until they produce a percentage , then they are then flipped . This guy is the president ? Missing out on these rock on profits , no wonder the Wisconsin legislature voted to remove collective bargaining .
    Who cares about the price of petroleum products ? The invisible hand will drive the unproductive into a solution , finally .

  • SW on May 18, 2011 3:04 PM:

    This is the essence of the problem and we should never allow these cocksuckers to lecture us about deficits. Ever. When Bush came into office all of the Republican wise men, to a person, Greenspan and the like all lined up and lectured us that the biggest economic threat facing the United States of America was, wait for it... The U. S. Government SURPLUS.

    SO they proceeded to enact policies that intentionally created huge deficits.

    Now, they are telling us that the biggest problem facing the United States of America is the U. S. Government DEFICIT.

    Well excuse me and fuck you all to hell.

    WE are not playing this game. The only way to deal with the deficit is to reverse the policies that created it. Period. It would take a complete idiot to listen to the 'solutions' that these very same people are offering. And that really is what the news media is doing. And for that, they should be ashamed and humiliated on a daily basis.

  • Danny on May 18, 2011 3:12 PM:

    "Starve the beast"

    The republicans even has a brand name for their little semi-secret conspiracy to kill medicare and social security, and they've had it for decades.

    It's no secret to us, but does the american people know about how republicans planned and effected unfinanced tax cuts to manufacture this fiscal chrisis that would allow them to go after the programs that keep american seniors financially secure and allows them a dignified retirement after working hard their whole life?

  • bdop4 on May 18, 2011 3:35 PM:

    I'm glad Krugman and others bring this up at this time, but this should have been common knowledge long ago.

    Yet our Dem leadership (the latest being my own Nancy Pelosi) persist in using the "D" word at every turn.

    It makes me freaking nuts.

  • Fr33d0m on May 18, 2011 3:54 PM:

    "I had to spend the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no."

    It is important to say that having a budget surplus doesn't mean that you have no debt.

  • Doug on May 18, 2011 8:39 PM:

    bdop4, that Representative Pelosi uses the "D" word only shows that she's a reasoning, itelligent person with the ability to recognize facts. Until Federal revenues equal, or are greater than, Federal expenditures, we DO have a deficit problem and it's only sensible to face that fact. The people who AREN'T displaying any reason or intelligence are those who say "tax increases are off the table" and refuse to cut subsidies to corporations that don't need them (except maybe as campaign contributions?).
    The "deficit" problem is NOT going to be solved only by slashing Federal expenditures and Rep. Pelosi, as well as other Democrats, have stated so on several occasions.
    We already have one political party that refuses to face reality, let's not go for two...

  • Danny on May 19, 2011 6:14 AM:

    @Doug

    Well that's not really true. If you know your econ101 you know that:

    1) If the deficit is lower than GDP growth we haven't got a problem, because then depth is shrinking.
    2) If the deficit is higher than GDP growth then there's cause for concern, because the dept is growing.
    3) If the deficit is projected to grow much faster than GDP growth long term then we got a long term deficit problem

    Right now we have (2) which we know is caused by (a) Bush era policies and (b) the recession.

    In ten years time we have (3) because of galloping health care costs.

    Neither of (2) and (3) are problems we have to - or even should - try to fix by overnight draconian spending cuts because they will only make (b) the recession worse and therefore increase the short term deficit (2).

    But we should put a long term solution to (2) and (3) in place, preferably with some tax increases and som cuts to go into effect when the economy is solid and finding some way to further reign in health care costs.

  • Danny on May 19, 2011 6:18 AM:

    @Doug

    And what I meant is not "really true" is this:

    Until Federal revenues equal, or are greater than, Federal expenditures, we DO have a deficit problem and it's only sensible to face that fact.

    They don't have to be equal. The Euro zone got a target of no larger deficits than 3% of GDP - since that's the mean historical growth rate. That way the federal depth stays the same; doesn't grow, doesn't shrink.

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