When the Treasury confirmed last week that the cumulative federal debt had crossed the $13 trillion mark, Washington's Republicans had a field day bashing the Obama administration for hitting that record mark. They were way off target. They should have been blasting George W. Bush's profligate legacy, and themselves for all the help they gave him in running up the debt while inducing economic catastrophe.
It was President George W. Bush, statistical records show, who more than doubled the federal deficit, from the $5.7 trillion mark that prevailed when took office, to his final budget eight year's later that pushed the federal debt to more than $12 trillion.
The budget mess he left Mr. Obama, moreover, had over $2 trillion more in deficit spending in the pipeline for his two credit-card wars, two rounds of deficit-fueling tax cuts for the super-wealthy, and an unfunded Medicare prescription drug bill.
Two other features of the Bush/Republican Congress era's fiscal recklessness further compound the disastrous run-up in debt that George W. Bush continued from his Republican presidential predecessors -- Ronald Reagan and his father, George Herbert Walker Bush.
One was the shift in momentum away from the Clinton era's actual narrowing of the budget deficit trends that Mr. Clinton inherited from the 12-year Reagan and Bush I regimes of "supply-side" economics and trickle-down theory of tax cuts as fiscal stimulus. The other ominous Bush II factor was the financial implosion that occurred on his watch, which further wrecked the federal budget, and induced the global recession that now haunts the economy -- and will continue to haunt it for years to come.
It was President Bill Clinton, as the year-by-year history of budget deficits show, who injected some fiscal sanity between the Reagan-Bush I and the Bush II tenures. He brought down the federal debt from the deficit heights hit during 12 years of the Reagan-Bush I: Together, they had quadrupled the federal debt, to $6 trillion before President Clinton took office. By the time he left office at the end of 2000, President Clinton had managed, for the first time in nearly 40 years, to turn in three straight years of budget surpluses, and to reduce the cumulative federal debt to $5.7 trillion.
That feat, moreover, did not include the hidden use of the substantial Social Security surplus, which the Reagan-Bush I administrations used to hide the full depth of their budget deficits. George W. Bush, of course, immediately returned to erecting soaring budget deficits.
The day that President Obama took office 18 months ago, the last Bush II budget, then carrying his $700 billion bank bailout bill, pushed the budget that the Obama administration inherited to over $12 trillion.
President George W. Bush not only more than doubled the federal debt with the unquestioning, complicit help of his Republican Congress. With GOP help, he also masked his full budget deficits by shifting the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars "off-budget" under the annual guise of "emergency spending" and masking some of that, as well, with the Social Security surplus.
President Obama has had to deal with the wreckage of the Bush era and its negligent financial deregulation. He's done a rather remarkable job, especially given the demand for fiscal stimulus and aid to devastated states while dealing simultaneously with a recession-whacked revenue base and a deficit-stressed Treasury.
In addition, in his own first budget this year, he has largely put the enormous costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq back on the annual federal budget ledger, showing taxpayers the true costs of wars that his predecessor had hidden. That has added hundreds of billions of locked-in costs, in addition to vastly higher costs for unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, along with higher health care, food stamps and worker training costs-- all on a federal revenue base that has been slashed by unemployment and depressed consumer spending.
It's all too easy now for Republicans and Tea Partiers to say that the country needs to reduce federal spending. Of course that's true. But timing is everything. With the recession still hobbling the economy and inhibiting new hiring, fiscal caution also requires a very careful racheting down of federal spending lest the economy be pushed into a double-dip recession.
Republicans did not exercise fiscal judgment and restraint when they were getting the nation into deep debt. Tshey should be careful now not to make the recession worse by arguing too early for a retreat from the fiscal medicine that was needed to treat the debt disease and fiscal crash they inflicted.