Not so long ago, in a country that now seems far, far away, Ronald Reagan told the nation, "we don't have deficits because people are taxed too little. We have deficits because big government spends too much."
He uttered those words in a year when Democrats controlled the House (the body in which spending legislation originates) and the national debt, according to the Bureau of Public Debt, was $2.3 trillion.
Last week, a Republican Senate voted to raise the debt ceiling to nearly $9 trillion. Senators quickly passed a record $2.8 trillion budget. What would Reagan say now? He said then, "the federal deficit is outrageous. For years I've asked that we stop pushing onto our children the excesses of our government." He called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and labeled the budget process a "sorry spectacle." That Republicans are outspending the most reckless 1980s Democrat (and 1960s Great Society Democrats and 1940s FDR Democrats) is the sorriest spectacle of all.
The Senate vote increased the debt ceiling for the fourth time in five years. The statutory debt limit has now risen by more than $3 trillion since President Bush took office. That any Republican majority could preside over such fiscally irresponsible spending ought to be grounds for revoking their party membership.
This is mostly about politics, not terrorism. Republicans fear that only gobs of money will endear them to voters in sufficient numbers to re-elect their increasingly precarious majority. Why should Republicans be re-elected when one of the major reasons the GOP exists is to reduce the size and cost of government and free more people to do for themselves instead of restricting their liberties through costly and overreaching big government?
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, rightly blamed out-of-control spending on his colleagues' political nervousness: "They want to go and say they are helping people, but we are not helping people when we are selling out their future."
DeMint might have added that it doesn't help people to cause them to rely on and pay for ever-expanding government. Such a policy stifles initiative and personal responsibility and discourages incentive. It goes against the "Puritan ethic" that was one of America's foundational principles.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, observed, "This budget could be the final nail in our coffin if we don't watch it." Graham said Republican spending habits are demoralizing voters: "I don't think we properly understand the keys to our electoral success."
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, defended spending an additional $7 billion for health and education programs, claiming those areas have lacked money in recent years. Is he kidding? The Bush administration has sired the biggest new entitlement program in history: a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. And let's not forget "No Child Left Behind," which massively increased federal education spending when there is no evidence of a connection between money and academic achievement.
Perhaps the real culprit is not Congress, but us. The Pew Research Center poll of March 14 found that only 55 percent of Americans rate the deficit as a "top priority." That contrasts with the 1990s when the deficit resonated more strongly with voters. As long as we are willing to take the money in exchange for our votes, politicians will give it to us. This must change, not only because we are in debt up to our eyeballs, but also because many of the note holders are, or might become, our enemies.
Means testing for all government programs and term limits for Congress are the answer to never-ending debt, but neither is likely to happen.
Reagan said his favorite president was Calvin Coolidge. In 1923, when Coolidge was vice president, he said, "After order and liberty, economy is one of the highest essentials of a free government."
Coolidge left the presidency with a surplus. So did Bill Clinton. That a Republican Congress and administration are engaging in such promiscuous spending is obscene. If voting in Democrats - who in the past engaged in deficit spending - punishes Republicans, little will change. What to do?
Maybe it's time for a strong third party, or failing that, another revolution.