Soon enough, we will find out if the automatic budget cuts taking effect today will be the hurricane that Democrats say or the soft summer breeze that Republicans calmly predict. What is indisputable is that it didn’t have to happen. There were alternatives that a rational government could have chosen.
Few Americans dispute that the country must begin reining in spending after five years of trillion-dollar deficits. A certain sector, mainly in the tea party right, likes to ignore the fact that higher deficits were the necessary price of surviving the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but even still, at some point the country has to come to grips with the deficits. The question has not been whether, but how.
President Obama has proposed a balanced approach that includes new tax revenue and spending cuts. Republicans will not hear of additional revenue, and are content to let the sequester begin rather than negotiate a smarter approach.
But, as painful as taxes may be, history offers some support for raising tax revenue. When President Clinton did that in his first term, the economy soared, likely in part because the action sent a message that Washington was serious about dealing with its deficits. By the end of Clinton’s second term, the federal government was running a surplus, though one that his successor promptly squandered.
More recently – as in January – the nation also posted a monthly surplus based on higher taxes on the wealthy, reduced spending that resulted from the 2011 debt limit agreement, and economic growth. That’s what a balanced approach accomplishes. Surely there is a lesson in there that even tea party Republicans are capable of learning.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, insists the initial cuts under the sequester are no big deal at all. “There can be savings made at every turn; just take the budget line by line by line like I did in Erie County,” he told The News. “You can absorb this $85 billion, and the public would never feel it at all.”
It’s a curious position for Collins to take because he, of all people, has reason to believe that it isn’t the case. Collins’ savings-at-every-turn approach helped him to lose his re-election bid as Erie County executive in 2011, as voters rebelled against cuts such as those he imposed on the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.
As many observers – Republicans among them – have noted lately, the national Republican Party as it is constituted today does not function the way a traditional party does; that is, advocating strongly for its positions but compromising in the name of progress and the national interest. Today’s Republican Party has become more like a refuge for men and women for whom a far-right ideology is akin to a religious calling. Purists don’t often make good leaders. Ronald Reagan certainly wasn’t one.
Today, that far-right ideology is putting the nation at risk. If the damage turns out to be less than some have feared, it won’t be because that mattered to the Republicans who wouldn’t brook a compromise that could benefit the country. It will be sheer, dumb luck – the only kind you can get when the budget ax is swung in a foolish fashion.