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In December 1989, a Miami Herald writer by the name of Joel Achenbach penned a long article for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine about what was then a spiraling federal budget deficit. Under the headline “Scandal,” and with suggestive photos of a beautiful young woman in lingerie, the article asked, “How is the national debt like a cheap affair?” Achenbach’s answer: “One: It feels good – for the moment. Two: Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Three: Your children will hate you for it.”
Presidents and Congresses of that era eventually turned deficits into surpluses by the late 1990s. Now, another spiraling deficit has emerged to take its place. And Achenbach has returned to the scene, though this time with another employer, the Washington Post. In Sunday’s “Outlook” section, he questioned how long our creditors will continue to buy the massive amounts of debt that we’re selling, outlining the dire ramifications if they should grow reluctant to continue.
That Achenbach has weighed in again on the deficit issue may not be earth-shattering news, but it’s a good sign nonetheless. Stories like Achenbach’s are but one piece of the groundwork that must be laid before President Obama and Congress will address the deficit. Other pieces of that necessary groundwork appear this week when the President’s fiscal commission holds its first meeting on Tuesday and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation sponsors a “fiscal summit” on Wednesday. (The Fiscal Times, an independent business venture, is also funded by Peter Peterson, but is not affiliated with his foundation.) Meanwhile, a separate fiscal commission under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center continues to toil away.
Skeptics correctly note that the President’s commission will be hard-pressed to meet its charge of crafting a plan by early December to which 14 of its ideologically diverse 18 members will agree. They also note, correctly again, that Democrats and Republicans in Congress are badly split over fiscal policy, with the former reluctant to cut domestic spending and the latter dead-set against tax increases. Thus, skeptics will trash this week’s activities as mere fiscal chest-thumping that will lead nowhere.
But the chest-thumping is not just worthwhile but necessary, for policymaking in Washington does not occur in a vacuum. Deficit-cutting in the 1980s and ‘90s came in the context of a seemingly endless series of congressional hearings, informal discussions between lawmakers and budget experts, conferences and seminars, books and papers, news conferences and news stories. Taken together, these educational activities sensitized Presidents and the Congress about the short-term risks and long-term damage of deficits. They influenced public opinion, and, in the end, convinced elected officials to abandon their rigid ideological positions and do what’s right.
Fortunately, this week’s deficit-related activities come in a context of an expanding series of educational activities. Two high-profile deficit commissions – one from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Peterson Foundation, the other from the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration – have outlined deficit-cutting plans in recent months. An ideological diverse group of budget experts have been holding forums around the country under a program called “The Fiscal Wake Up Tour.” Congressional hearings, books, papers, and news stories are adding to the intellectual fervor.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to attend a tea party to recognize that the public is growing increasingly concerned about soaring red ink, which has come to symbolize an out-of-control federal government. As we did at times in the 1980s and ‘90s, we may be reaching a fiscal tipping point – a moment when the political downsides of ignoring big deficits begin to outweigh the downsides of raising taxes and cutting spending to address them.
To be sure, we’ve got a ways to go. Obama must abandon his pledge not to raise taxes on anyone earning up to $250,000 a year, Republicans must drop their all-encompassing opposition to tax hikes, and Democrats must dismiss their reluctance to restructure federal health and retirement programs in fundamental ways. How and when it will occur is anyone’s guess. But the more commissions, hearings, books, and papers – the more news conferences and news stories – the more tea party-ish fervor and more generalized public discontent – the better.
However much they look like political window dressing at the moment, we should not dismiss this week’s activities. We should welcome them with open arms. They are the necessary predicate for eventual policymaking.
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.