Thursday, January 28, 2010


President Obama’s first State of the Union address last night was brilliant. If you didn’t watch it, do so (you can see it here). I’m not going to summarize it here. But there is one point I’d to highlight:

Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. …To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together.

As it turns out, there were two votes taken in the Senate today that demonstrate the full extent of the abject irresponsibility and nihilism of Republicans in Congress.

The more important vote today was to raise the country’s debt limit. Without that vote the ability of the US government to borrow in global capital markets would have ended by the end of next month. The measure passed on a straight party line vote: 60-39. Not a single Republican voted for the measure.

So what possible Republican “message” could have been intended with this vote? If the increase in the debt limit was not approved, the United States would not be able to pay its debts. If you think the financial crisis of 2008 risked a global financial meltdown, try having the US default on its debt. Talk about the “nuclear option” – you’re playing with financial apocalypse. The full faith and credit of the US government is the foundation of the global financial system. Are we supposed to conclude that had the new Republican senator from Massachusetts already been sworn in today, Republicans would have forced a US default?

Let’s give Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume it was just some kind of reckless and irresponsible “symbolic” vote made possible by the fact they refuse to take any actual responsibility for governance. What is the symbolism? That international investors should question the security of their investments in US government debt? (Actually,
back in June, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk, now running for the Senate in Illinois, met with Chinese leaders and told them, in his words, “that the budget numbers that the US government had put forward should not be believed.”) That would only bump up the interest rates we pay on our national debt and further increase the deficit. Maybe they were trying to say that we have to get serious about deficit reduction.

That leads us to the other vote of the day. The senate voted on so-called “pay-as-you-go” budget rules that require that tax cuts or spending increases be matched by spending cuts or tax increases. In other words, Congress has to pay for what it enacts. It was these rules, which prevailed during the ‘90’s, that were largely responsible for the record budget surpluses inherited by President Bush. And it was Bush and a Republican Congress allowing those rules to lapse in 2002 that cleared the way for the record budget deficits that followed. The measure passed the Senate today 60-40, on a straight party line vote. Again, not a single Republican voted for this fiscal discipline. Not one. Not Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins or Mr. Fiscal Responsibility, Judd Gregg or “Maverick” John McCain.

As I’ve
noted before, over 75 percent of our national debt was racked up under just three Republican presidents – Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. That is the debt that we must pay down or continue to finance with interest. The interest (and the interest on the interest) just for that Republican debt will amount to trillions of dollars over the next decade. Is there some symbolic message that we are supposed to glean from the refusal of Republicans to allow the US government to finance the debt accumulated under their leadership?

As President Obama noted in his speech last night:

At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus
of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.

In January of last year, before President Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office
estimated that the 2009 deficit at $1.2 trillion. And that was based on more optimistic assumptions than proved to be the case. And it did not take into account any tax cuts, job creation efforts or other economic stimulus measures. That is the fiscal mess President Obama inherited.

Let’s take a look at the major items that turned record budget surpluses into record deficits. I went back and took a look at the 2001 Congressional vote approving the tax cuts that blew a $2 trillion hole in our country’s finances. It passed the Senate on a 58-33 vote. (What? I thought 60 votes are required to pass anything in the Senate?) By my count, 22 of the Senate Republicans who voted today against allowing the government to finance its debt were in the Senate at the time of the 2001 vote. Of those 22, 21 voted for the Bush tax cuts. (To his credit, John McCain voted for fiscal responsibility before he voted against it.) The story is pretty much the same with regard to the 2003 tax cuts, which resulted in another trillion dollars or so of debt. By my rough count, 24 Senate Republicans who voted against today’s measure were in the Senate then and, again, all but McCain voted for the 2003 tax cuts. (That one was actually a 50-50 tie in the Senate – broken by the Dark One, Vice President Cheney. Again, you will note, 50 inexplicably is less than 60.) I’m not going to bother to repeat this exercise with respect to the two other major budget-busting measures of the Bush era – the Iraq war vote and subsequent spending votes (which I am confident that 100% of today’s Senate Republicans who were in the body at that time supported) and the Medicare Part D measure, which added another trillion dollars or so of debt over its first decade.

The Center On Budget and Policy Priorities undertook an
excellent analysis of the factors underlying our current deficits. If you have the same affliction I do and are actually interested in this kind of thing, I recommend reading it. But assuming you don’t, it is pretty well summarized in this handy chart:

So, then, what was the symbolism of today’s votes? The guys who ran up our country’s debt would bring down the global financial system to score points against the Democrats?

There is a word for that – nihilism.

That is the “Republican response” to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

1 comment:

Bill Liddicoet said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Russ! In the immortal words of Walter Sobchak (The Big Lebowski): "Nihilists! F**k me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."