The new voodoo

Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility--and, yes, there is a Santa Claus

Sometimes, our political debates are just so silly.
The vogue du jour is for topping your tax-cut proposal with my tax-cut proposal. Does it take Ross Perot to remind us that we are still not paying for the government we already have?

The Clinton administration has cut the deficit from $290 billion to an estimated $160 billion in 1995--good on them. That still will leave us $160 billion in the hole, except that everyone knows health-care costs will drive the deficit back up again in a few years.

And that's just the deficit. Our multitrillion-dollar national debt is still forcing the government to borrow money, so interest payments eat up the money that might be used to solve social problems or even give us all a tax break.

Fine, say the conservatives--we don't want all the government we're already getting, so cut it. So far, Clinton is the only one who has explained how he's going to pay for tax cuts with spending cuts, and although that's fine as far as it goes, it still doesn't get the deficit any lower, much less the debt.

For a tax break that amounts to the price of a pizza per week, all our elected representatives seem prepared to march us right back into the swamp of debt we've just started to wade out of.

One of the most embarrassing political illusions I ever suffered from was that the Republicans were the party of fiscal responsibility. When I was young, it was sort of like believing in Santa Claus--a myth everyone accepted.

Everybody said the Democrats were the party of tax-and-spend and the Republicans were fiscal conservatives. Progressive Texas Democrats would always carefully identify themselves by saying, "I'm a social liberal and a fiscal conservative." It meant they believed in paying the bills.

I am mortified to report that when Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980, I, with touchingly misplaced faith, thought: "Well, at least he'll get the deficit down."

Two trillion dollars later, as the great fiscal conservative rode off into the sunset, I was cured of one more illusion.

You want to know how irresponsible Reagan was? During three of his last four years in office, the dread Democratic Congress, those notorious high spenders, tried to spend less than the president wanted.

Former Speaker Jim Wright tells a priceless story about the time Congress and the Reagan administration agreed to a total-sum spending cut, half of it to come from domestic spending chosen by Congress and the other half from military spending chosen by the administration. The two sides met for the big summit; Wright laid out the domestic cuts and...Reagan proposed another increase in military spending.

Seven years into his presidency, he still thought spending on the military would cut the deficit.

And if you think that's silly, meet the new Republicans. They still believe it. The same old Wall Street Journal crowd that gave us the Laffer curve, voodoo economics, and the $500 billion savings and loan bailout (because deregulation was the answer to everything, remember?) is back in the saddle, just aglow about the prospect they call "finishing the Reagan revolution." "Reagan revolution" means we conduct all our illegal wars off the books.

I don't believe in Santa Claus anymore, and I don't believe Republicans are fiscally responsible. In fact, the hair stands up on the back of my liberal neck when I hear Rep. Dick Armey blithely propose that we move from "static accounting" to "dynamic accounting." One of Clinton's finest achievements (thank you, Leon Panetta and Alice Rivlin) has been to use real numbers in making the budget. Smoke, mirrors, and fudge have given way to reality. Now is not the time to go back to pie in the sky.

More bad fiscal ideas are being floated than one person can keep track of. Rep. Bill Archer, yet another Texas gift to the world, wants to abolish the progressive income tax and go to a flat tax, which is an old Jerry Brown idea.

(Has anyone besides me and David Remnick, in the December 5 New Yorker, noticed Rep. Newt Gingrich's amazing resemblance to Jerry Brown?) Fifteen percent across-the-board income tax, say Archer and Armey, is fair. Everybody pays the same percentage--how much fairer can you get?

I know a single woman whose annual income is more than $200,000 a year in unearned income on money she inherited from her daddy, plus whatever she gets from a sort of business-hobby making arty glass. I also know a family with five children, one of them born with spina bifida; he works two jobs, truck delivery and night clerk, and she works every day cleaning houses. Their oldest son, 17, has a night job as a parking-lot attendant, and together, they make $40,000 a year.

Fifteen percent of their $40,000 is more than 15 percent of her $200,000. Get it?

Ross Perot makes $1 million a day. (The reason I know this is because one time I put in my column that he makes more than $1 million a year, thinking it was a safe assertion, and he called me collect, worried that he was on his way to the poorhouse--which I still think is one of the funniest "gotchas" I ever heard.)

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