Where Was The Washington Posts Fiscal Conservatism During The 1990s?

     In an article entitled: Alarms Sounded On Cost of GOP Bills; Lawmakers Increase Spending to Win Votes Jonathan Weisman continues his bleat to the effect that the federal government isnt collecting enough taxes and this time he tries to shift the focus to out of control spending by Republicans. As Congress rushes to conclude its 2003 session, Republican leaders are trying to garner votes for controversial legislation by loading the bills with billions of dollars in added costs that analysts said would expand the budget deficit for years to come. The year-end binge has alarmed analysts in Washington and on Wall Street, coming as it does after three years of presidential and congressional initiatives that have both substantially boosted government spending and shrunk its tax base. That sentiment resonates from the Washington Post of November 24.

     The Posts sudden fiscal conservatism is noteworthy, but we are skeptical. It appears that the Post's objection is not necessarily to spending per se, but to the objects of the pork. The Post is not suddenly in favor of shrinking the federal government, but would prefer different targeting of the current profligacy. And, finally, there would be no problem whatever, the Post tells us, if only tax revenues were continuing their bloated growth.

     Witness this astounding comment: When the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the cost of the Republican [Medicare Reform] bill would fall $5 billion shy of its $400 billion allotment, congressional leaders could have not spent that money. Instead, they sweetened the pot, reducing patient deductibles from $275 to $250, and raising the drug coverage limit from $2,200 to $2,250. Since when has the Washington Post opposed increasing entitlements?

     All this leaves us to ask, why during the 1990s as annual federal government spending increased by the staggering sum of $536 billion, did the Post not object? Or, more to the point, why did the Post have no problem at all with the fact that yearly federal government receiptstax collectionsincreased by nearly $994 billion during that decade? Annualizing those sums for effect over the favored ten year horizon should have induced panic; instead we can only imagine how sanguine the Post must have been in the comforting thought that the cherished federal government would be collecting $10 trillion more in the decade 2000 through 2010 than it did during the 1990s. It is hardly surprising that Posts concern for fiscal restraint began in November 2000 as it realized that a third Clinton administration was not to be and liberal sacred cows might go wanting.

     The Posts real problem is that spending is not being targeted in a manner that it approves, and, seemingly, that Republicans have somehow managed to short circuit the growth of the federal governments income. Thus, tax cuts, not spending in Herculean amounts, are the true object of the Posts wrath.

     The sources utilized to substantiate the Post's argument that tax cuts have induced the current fiscal crisis are too convenient to be taken seriously. Framing prescriptions for reforming federal fiscal policy based on advice from Robert Rubin, "moderates" like Warren Rudman and Robert D. Reischauer, and the left-dominated Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget indicates that the Post, rather than suddenly joining the ranks of fiscal conservatives, remains more interested in preserving budget growth after all.

     There may indeed by a reckoning to come should Congress continue to spend at its current pace. But is there much doubt that the Posts solution would be increased taxes, rather than restrained spending? As evidence we offer the following from a Post editorial printed November 19:

     "Some in the anti-government camp are betting that choking off tax revenue will eventually choke off spending too. History suggests that it won't -- and a malnourished federal government isn't the right goal in any case. Mr. Bush's tax cuts weren't affordable when passed; they're even less so now that promised surpluses have given way to record deficits. The country has pressing needs that can't coexist with year after year of massive tax cuts. Neither can they coexist with a spending-as-usual approach to the budget. But if there's any lesson in the record on taxes and spending of the past few years, it's that those in charge don't have the willpower to restrain themselves on either score."

     Heaven forefend, the Post insists, that we "malnourish" the federal government; nor should anyone think for a moment that we can "afford" tax cuts under any circumstances. The Post's clear position is that even "promised surpluses" must be used to "nourish" government and finance spending on "pressing needs" rather than eliminated by reducing the overly burdensome taxes that produce surpluses in the first place. For an explanation of what the Post would like to substitute for "spending as usual," one needs only refer to its December 7 editorial entitled "Better Big Ideas," in which the newspaper offers the following game plan for future budgets:

     "Make sure every child who qualifies gets to attend Head Start; right now, two out of five are shut out, the Children's Defense Fund reports. Make sure every low-income family that qualifies receives housing assistance; right now, 5 million are in need, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Not Big enough? How about health insurance and preschool for every American 4-year-old?"

     In the same editorial, the Post derisively challenges President George W. Bush to "Finish what you started." After a long litany of criticisms, most of which are specious, regarding the administration's efforts to "[make] Americans safer" after 9/11, challenges President Bush to "Clean up your mess. Mr. Bush not only has failed to confront the serious budgetary problems that he inherited; he's made a frightening situation far worse." The Post once more calls the tax cuts "unaffordable" and chides the president for "allow[ing] federal spending to soar..." resulting in "no end to the record deficits in sight." The Post then states that: "The selfishness and irresponsibility are breathtaking. So here's one more Big Idea: level with the American people about what it will take to get the fiscal house back in order, and begin the process...."

     Well, well, well; righteous indignation the likes of which we never saw the Post express from January 1, 1993 through January 1, 2001. Well, to be totally accurate, Republicans were "irresponsible" on numerous occasions. Even the North Koreans were guilty of irresponsibility. And, to be honest, President Bill Clinton was called "irresponsible" for allowing his personal peccadilloes to impede those parts of his political agenda the Post favored.

     However, this (somewhat long) excerpt from an editorial from August 8, 1993, entitled "The Budget: What Happened..." contains an assessment that is instructive as to the Post's current tone:

     "The Republicans get a special prize. They steadily denounced as fiscally irresponsible a bill to reverse their own 12 years of fiscal irresponsibility, and then, having said that they would not vote aye, complained that they had been shut out of the process; no dirt on those clean hands. The Democrats -- a persistent, substantive president, House and Senate majorities held together by sticking plaster -- had to produce the necessary legislation on their own. No one regards it as a perfect product, but they did pretty well.

     The likely deficit five years hence will be about 40 percent below the level it had been projected to reach without the bill. That will still be too high, but it may also be about as much restraint as a weak economy should be asked to withstand. About half the reduction will be achieved through tax increases, mainly through raising the income tax rates of the top few percent of taxpayers. The big winners in the last two administrations will be called upon to give some of it back. The net cost of Social Security, by itself a fifth of the budget and the largest entitlement, will be modestly reduced by applying what amounts to an income test to benefits; a larger share of these will be subject to the income tax. That's the right way to do it. New strictures are also to be imposed in the form of tight caps for the next five years on the third of the budget, including defense, that is subject to the annual appropriations process.

     Not all the bill is spinach. The president -- wisely, in our judgment -- sought to use some of the savings to advance his social agenda as well. The measure includes a large increase in aid to the working poor particularly. A kind of negative income tax would be used to supplement their wages. The tax credit takes the president partway to welfare reform. The idea is to make work pay; the goal is that no child of a parent who works full-time year-round in this country should live in poverty. Together with national service legislation, on which Congress is expected to complete action when it returns next month, the budget bill would also substantially restructure college student aid.

     But the service legislation is an emblem of how the president's goals of reducing the budget deficit and social deficit at the same time are in conflict. The bill was much reduced and, is an authorization only, subject to the appropriations process -- on which, for a combination of fiscal and political reasons, the president has just agreed to tight constraints. He lacks the means to carry out his agenda. Nor is he done with spinach. If there is not a second plateful, the deficit will head up again toward the end of the decade. The driving force will be health care costs in the form of Medicare and Medicaid; these are the great budget-busters.

     The health care reform plan the president is scheduled to present next month is meant in part to contain those costs. But the plan will also seek to increase access to care -- a seventh of the population lacks health insurance at any one time -- and the president has to find a way to finance that increase. Round Two will likely be the same as Round One, only much more complicated: more cost-cutting and tax increases (or the equivalent by another name) to finance another burst of deficit reduction and increased aid, mostly to have-nots. Who says this is a president who picks the easy ones?"

     Thus the Post proves its consistency. Tax increases on the wealthy, negative income taxes for the poor; deficit reduction is OK, but only so long as it doesn't get in the way of increased spending to reduce the nation's "social deficit." Thus the Post's clamor for President Bush to "level with the American people about what it will take to get the fiscal house back in order, and begin the process...." is both hollow and hypocritical.