America’s Political Debate – A National Embarrassment


John Shelby Spong

Either those who now run the legislative wing of our government are irresponsible and frivolous with this nation’s health and well being or there is something I do not understand about the current crisis in Washington. I am both amazed at and disgusted by the behavior of some of our elected representatives. Let me test my sanity and that of my readers by calling to mind what seem to be the facts that lie behind the budget deficit; facts that no one appears to remember.

When George W. Bush was elected President in 2000, this nation had a budgetary surplus. Indeed both liberal and conservative economists predicted a growing surplus “for as far as the eye can see.” President Bush responded to this reality, I believe appropriately, by having a tax cutting bill passed to restore a significant part of that surplus to the taxpayers. Every major economist and the leaders in both of our political parties supported that first Bush tax cut and it passed with huge bi-partisan majorities.

Then came 9/11 and the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That attack also struck a mighty blow at our economy. The costs of national security rose exponentially. The new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security was created, making it the symbol of a huge new expansion of government. Leaders in both parties supported this initiative as necessary to the safety of our nation. Airline security measures, subsidized by the Federal Government, were enacted to counter the threat of more terrorist attacks. The cost of these measures was enormous, but it was argued that if our air travel was not assumed to be safe by the public American business would suffer badly, the airline industry would face bankruptcy and the economy would be dealt a near fatal blow. There were, however, no revenue increases asked of the American people to offset these new expenditures, so the deficit began to grow.

Next, and as a direct result of the 9/11 attack that originated from Afghanistan, this nation entered into a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Wars are expensive, yet no budgetary provisions were made to offset the expenses of this war, so the deficit shifted into a higher gear.

Before that war was complete and even before our objectives in that war were achieved, a new war, ideologically driven and based upon the assumption that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction,” was launched. This war was far bigger in scope, and therefore far more expensive than the war in Afghanistan in terms of both lives and material, costing quite literally billions of dollars a day to wage. Yet once again no provisions for paying for this war were placed inside the national budget and no sacrifices on the part of any Americans, except those serving in the armed forces were asked. The result was that the national debt simply exploded.

While these things were going on, under pressure from lobbying groups, including political liberals, but carried by a congress under Republican control, a drug feature was added to Medicare. It was a benefit widely cheered by senior citizens and by those who had long dreamed of universal health care. It was signed into law by a Republican president. Once again, as seemingly had become a pattern, no additional revenues were solicited or called for to offset this new entitlement. The result was that the deficit went out of sight.

Then in a move that was not supported by our leading economists, including Alan Greenspan, a second tax-lowering bill was passed and signed into law by President Bush. This bill was heavily weighted with benefits for the wealthy and the very wealthy. Once again, there was no offsetting cut in spending. So we lowered the income to the nation while keeping spending at the same level and this served, not surprisingly, to raise the deficit to new heights. The argument for these tax cuts was that lowering the taxes of the “job-creators” would spur the economy and create jobs. That did not happen. The number of jobs created during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency was miniscule, one of the lowest rates of any eight-year presidency in American history.

Then came the financial meltdown of 2008, inaugurated by the popping of the housing bubble and staggering both American and international banking institutions, the significant manipulators of the spiraling housing inflation. With these institutions reeling the threat of a world-wide depression was real and we watched the collapse of up to 40% of the value in American stock markets. Capital losses then further diminished tax revenues. Unemployment in this nation rose to over 10%. Industries cut jobs, and people who were pink-slipped in this economic downturn not only lost their income, but they lost their health care coverage as well, since in this country health care is a benefit of employment. People also lost their houses in record numbers. Housing deals that were “too good to be true” turned out to be just that, too good to be true. In the face of this crisis, the primary activity of the federal government, begun under President Bush and continued under President Obama, was to bail out the financial institutions, the insurance companies and the automobile industries. It was stated that these steps would stabilize the markets and thus were essential to an economic recovery. I have no reason to doubt that, but from the perspective of those of our citizens who had lost employment, health care and homes, it looked like a misplaced priority and anger began to rise in the body politic.

Instead of focusing on jobs through a public works effort to put people back to work and in so doing to address infrastructure needs of this nation, the Obama administration used all of its energy to get health care reform passed that promises to add additional stress to the deficit. So, here we are, the United States of America, the world’s wealthiest country, with deficits now reaching to numbers most can not imagine, and with the political discourse about this crisis, called “blaming,” no longer even civil. With entrenched positions against raising taxes and even closing corporate loopholes on one side or cutting entitlements on the other, compromise has become all but impossible and, as a result, politicians posture as this nation teeters on the brink of disaster.

No economist I know of believes that the deficit can be addressed without a combination of significant spending cuts and revenue increases, including loophole closing. Yet politicians in Washington first want to play chicken with our national economic well being or, if that tactic fails, to provide opponents with an ideological victory to avoid the political pain by postponing any substantial work on the deficit until after the next election. Special interest groups ask candidates to sign pledges today that they will not raise taxes or close loopholes. Candidates are thus reduced to being controlled robots to ideological agendas. Congressional Republicans have now passed a meaningless resolution that they know will never become law, requiring a two-thirds majority before taxes can be raised or loopholes closed, thus making tax reform in the future impossible. They also want to amend the Constitution of the United States to require a balanced budget, which means that the weight of the balanced budget without revenue increases will fall heaviest on the poor and middle class. Our nation appears to be in the grip of uncaring greed. No one seems to care about the poor, the elderly, the infirm, our children, those without health care, the quality of our education, the needs of our common environment and many of the other things that make this nation what it is. The quality of national life is now to be subjected to hard, ideological lines drawn in the sand.

I have never known Washington, DC, to be so dysfunctional. I have never known such obvious political priorities to overwhelm so obviously the good of our nation. I have never seen such unreasonable rhetoric coming out of apparently educated people, combined as it is with such unwillingness to compromise. While all this goes on, the gap between the rich and the poor of this nation grows larger and larger. This gap first accelerated at an increasing rate during the eight years of the Clinton administration and then rose off the charts during the eight years of the Bush administration. Even more frightening, the gap between the rich and the super rich has now become astonishing. A hedge fund operator who made 4.9 billion dollars in one year still argues that his income should only be taxed at the capital gains level, while General Electric managed to pay no taxes at all in the United States last year. Is either appropriate behavior?

The reluctance of the rich and the super rich to pay a proportionate share of their income to keep healthy the nation that provided them with the context in which this wealth was created simply astounds me. Patriotism does not simply mean coming to the defense of your nation in time of attack and war. Patriotism means helping your nation become that “shining city on the hill” of which President Reagan once spoke, the last great hope of humankind, a nation that inspires the people of the world because of the stable and fair society that we have built. The greatness of a nation is always seen in the way it cares for its weakest citizens.

I expect there to be in our body politic, both liberals, that is those whose primary goal is to seek the common good even at the expense of the individual, and conservatives, that is, those whose primary concern is to preserve individuality at the expense of the common good. That is as it should be, but a nation cannot finally have one without the other. It is in the tension between the liberal and conservative positions that great nations are built. To demand the “unconditional surrender” of one or the other to the ideological extremes of our day is an act of national suicide. This nation can do better than this. This nation must do better than this! Perhaps the emergence of the six ideologically diverse senators with a compromise plan represents the first shred of the return of sanity to our government. Time will tell.

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