‘Deficits make it easier to say no’

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.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.