Identifying the culprit

IDENTIFYING THE CULPRIT…. In recent months, there’s been a renewed push among many Republicans to assign blame for the federal budget deficit they claim to be concerned about. The GOP consensus: the hole we’re in is the Democrats’ fault.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) recently said, “We’re here mopping up their spilled milk, to be honest.” Karl Rove insisted two weeks ago, “Republicans are not to be blamed for Mr. Obama’s spending.”

Lori Montgomery has a worthwhile piece in the Washington Post today, stating the facts.

The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.

In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.

Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds.

Now, I’d note that the budget deficit, in the short term, really isn’t the crisis Republicans and many in the media make it out to be. We still have the ability to borrow at low interest rates, and I think we should do so, spending more to create jobs and improve the economy.

But for those who consider this a problem — or worse, a “crisis” — and want to know how we ended up in this mess, the facts are incontrovertible, even if Republicans find them inconvenient.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans blame wasteful or unnecessary federal programs for the nation’s budget problems. But routine increases in defense and domestic spending account for only about 15 percent of the financial deterioration, according to a new analysis of CBO data.

The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That’s nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt. Federal tax collections now stand at their lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 60 years.

It seems hard to believe that, just a decade ago, the deficit didn’t exist and there were surpluses as far as the eye could see. Had it not been for the Republican agenda of the last decade, we’d be on track to eliminate the national debt altogether. (Yes, it is ironic the party that complains most about the mess is the party responsible for having created the mess.)

But as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) explained, reflecting on the Bush/GOP decade, it was an era in which “it was standard practice not to pay for things.” It was, of course, the Republican Party that came up with this “standard practice.”

I suspect some on the right will say the finger-pointing and blame game is unseemly, and that we should all just let bygones be bygones.

Well, no. For one thing, Republicans continue to play their own version of the blame game, except in this case, they’re lying. For another, credibility counts — when those who screwed up demand that we keep taking their judgment seriously, it’s wise to do the opposite.