Among the political cross currents stirring the criticism of many Americans lately is the sense that government spending in Washington is out of control. The tens of thousands of protesters in the Fox News-promoted, Republican-organized "tea party" anti-tax movement -- including a number of Tennesseans -- who gathered in the nation's capital last Sunday were there specifically to raise the alarm against new spending that they don't agree with.
Many would empathize with their purported root complaint of exploding federal debt. Our question is what took the conservative faction so long to become concerned about uncontrolled deficit spending. Why, precisely, were they so blasé about the stunning deficit spending in the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II presidencies, during which most of the current debt was created and put in the fiscal pipeline that is still spewing it out.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, riding the failed "supply-side" tax-cut policies, ramped up federal debt enormously during in their terms. It took the fiscal discipline of President Bill Clinton and his tax-increase medicine (mainly on the rich so favored by the Reagan-Bush I tax policies) to reverse the growing federal debt. Indeed, President Clinton produced, from 1997 to 2001, the only budget surpluses recorded in Washington in nearly 50 years.
George W. Bush destroyed those favorable surplus policies as soon as took control, with full support from Vice President Cheney, who famously growled, "deficits don't matter," and then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who expressed concern about getting the federal debt level too low.
Under the Bush II tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, plus his "off-budget" spending (meaning more borrowed money on top of his tax cuts) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last president ran annual average budget deficits of approximately $550 billion in each of the past completed eight fiscal years. His deficit spending in those years -- quietly lubricated by five increases in the national debt ceiling, all but one by Republican-controlled congresses -- jacked the national debt up from the $5.7 trillion level when he took office to more than $10 trillion near the end of 2008.
In his last budget, for the current fiscal year which began last Oct. 1, Mr. Bush added another $1.3 trillion in deficit spending, pushing the federal deficit up by more than $6 trillion on his watch. With that, George W. Bush more than doubled the federal debt, to over $11 trillion, in his eight-year tenure. Plus, he left several trillion dollars more in debt in the fiscal pipeline to wind-up the Iraq war, finish the war in Afghanistan, and rebuild and resupply the battered military following the needless Iraq debacle.
Beyond that lies the still uncounted cost of his and the GOP's grand deceit about their tax cuts for the wealthy, which amounted to $1.7 trillion for the 10 years ending next year. Mr. Bush and his GOP party never counted the post-10-year cost of their tax cuts that would pile up after 2011. But they set the rhetorical trap to keep those costs coming by constantly arguing in his second term that not making those tax cuts permanent would amount to a -- gasp -- tax increase. (And remember, they never had an offset to pay for their tax cuts; they had terminated the Clinton-era pay-as-you-go rules for new spending shortly after they took office).
The long-term costs of the Bush-GOP tax cuts were simply left for the next president to deal with. Sure enough, when Mr. Obama was putting together his first budget, for the 2009-2010 fiscal year that begins next month, GOP pressure against ending the high-end tax cuts for those with incomes above 250,000 (to help pay for stimulus tax cuts for the middle class) provoked enough opposition that he dropped the idea until next year.
President Obama, to be sure, had to add to the federal debt to shore up the economy from the epic fiscal disaster that ruptured on his predecessor's watch and swamped him when he opened the Oval Office door. The Bush Great Recession, literally almost Great Depression II, will impose additional long-term costs for years to come.
In addition, the Baby Boomer tide that will arrive in 2011, making new millions of seniors eligible for federal retirement benefits then, portends a steady new drain on Social Security and Medicare trust funds just when the government -- thanks largely to newly generated Republican debt -- will find it more difficult to manage entitlement spending and keep up with other fiscal demands.
Spending on the Pentagon, Medicare, Social Security and interest on the federal debt now consume fully 70 percent of the federal budget. President Bush seriously aggravated all those problems. Had the Clinton-Gore plan to run the federal debt down to nearly zero the past eight years remained intact, entitlement costs could be easily managed. Now, they pose a substantial problem.
Yet it is those projected entitlement costs and interest on the debt -- not any new spending by President Obama -- that actually haunt fiscal conservatives. Anger at President Obama for trying to pass health-care reform -- the element most needed to control entitlement costs -- is seriously misplaced. So is anger over the administration's efforts to patch up the Bush recession wreckage.
The grossly unfair irony here is that Glenn Beck and his legions of myopic tea-baggers have the wrong target and the wrong strategy to control the costs that scare them. It's the Bush legacy that should provoke their anger -- and prompt their support for cost-saving health care reform, which will minimize the pending health-cost drain, and which actually comes with a cost-offset, for a change.