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Deficit Chickenhawks

by Brian Beutler

December 5, 2009

Politicians love to brag about fiscal discipline, but few have the record to back it up. The media needs to help America figure out who's who.


Agility and power don't often go together. A tank can't turn on a dime; a linebacker isn't usually much of a pole-vaulter; and, in much the same way, the Democratic party isn't as nimble as the smaller, more ideologically limited GOP. That's one major reason why, despite a huge majority in Congress, President Obama is still having an awfully hard time enacting his agenda.

But I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that the Democrats can do better than to threaten each other with mass immolation.

Allow me to explain: A statute limits the size America's federal debt. But every year for a long time now Congress has enacted legislation to raise the country's debt ceiling. It's one of only a handful of bills that passes with little wrangling on the Hill, because it simply must pass. America owes trillions of dollars to foreign debt holders and if we default, all hell will break lose both in the United States and abroad.

This year though, a number of Democrats-including Kent Conrad, Dianne Feinstein, and Evan Bayh-are threatening to blow the whole thing up. They say they won't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless party leaders pair the bill with a separate measure to create a powerful and unaccountable "entitlement commission" to radically reshape Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs, likely reducing their benefits.

On the one hand, this threat is so outlandish as to be self-defeating. Not only are these Democrats holding the country and the world hostage to their peculiar complaints about welfare programs for the needy, but they're threatening to lob their own political party into the ensuing chaos.

These Democrats-moderates and conservatives, freshmen and old-timers-identify themselves as fiscal hawks, and for obvious reasons: There's not a single quality more fetishized in the Washington establishment. The title suits some better than others, but few truly deserve it. Of the Democrats in this cohort who were around at the beginning of the decade, most supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, every penny of which have been financed by debt.

Senators Evan Bayh and Bill Nelson-who signed a letter pressing for the creation of this debt and entitlement commission-voted earlier this year to slash the estate tax. Republicans call it a "death tax" but you may know it better as the "Paris Hilton tax." If they'd gotten their way, they'd have blown a hole in the budget on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars. That hole could have been filled by new revenue-cuts to government services, or by tax increases on less-wealthy people-or, if that failed, it could have just been patched over by new debt.

Nothing ultimately came of that initiative, but the episode spotlights the hypocrisy-and questionable values-in the ranks of the fiscal hawk brigade. Health care reform must be spare, and paid for, while wars of undetermined length can-no, should!-be waged wastefully. Longstanding welfare programs for vulnerable Americans must be scrutinized heavily to save money, while the government signs over huge checks to the children of dead wealthy people. In fact, the latter is so pressing that it, in part, necessitates the former.

There are genuine fiscal hawks in Washington-Conrad's record isn't so bad-and it's no surprise that they've trained their eyes on entitlement spending. But they have political clout-and can threaten to force America into default-thanks to many more hypocrites in Congress. That is, perhaps, the cruelest farce in all of politics.

In other policy realms, a label is more than just a label. Green-minded legislators have to prove their bona fides to outside score-keepers, as do pro-choicers and pro-lifers, and so on. But pretty much anybody who criticizes federal programs and taxes can call themselves a "fiscal hawk" or "fiscal conservative" without having to answer to everybody-especially the media.

And in the end, the media bears the most responsibility. They're the ones with the power and incentive to upset this dynamic-but first they'll have stop mindlessly echoing tropes about "fiscal discipline" and start examining the well-documented record.

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Deficit Chickenhawks