Plumbing The Depths Of Our National Debt

Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press

Like children who just cracked the code to their parent’s home equity account, Congress last week drilled deeper into your pockets, raising the limit on federal government borrowing by $781 billion. Tapping into more debt and giddy with the cash reserve, lawmakers—both Republicans and Democrats, many of whom are facing reelection in the fall—then spent more than $100 billion (much of it on the war in Iraq and hurricane relief) without any offsetting budget cuts.

“On vote after vote in the House and Senate, lawmakers demonstrated the growing gap between their political promises to rein in spending and their need to respond to emergencies and to protect politically popular programs,” the Washington Post reported.

Goofy, gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman must be amused: what me worry? Hey, amigos, we got plenty of scratch, as the saying goes; it’s just tied up in debt. And the hemp is getting tighter and tighter, but no one seems to be noticing that we’re all gasping in shades of red and blue.

Remember the good old days of the Grand Old Party? As the Bush bus rolled into Washington amid a ticker-tape parade of tax cuts, we actually had a surplus in the bank. The statutory debt limit has now risen by more than $3 trillion—no chump change for a party that preaches fiscal restraint. “The problem we have had on the budget all along is a lack of adult supervision,” economist Bruce Bartlett told The New York Times, suggesting Congress can’t be blamed for looking after its parochial interests. “It’s the president’s responsibility to look out for the national interest, and I think that responsibility has been largely abandoned over the last five years.”

Not quite. Letting Congress off the hook for our current budget crisis is like allowing your teenage son out on a Saturday night after a Friday night bender. But Bartlett—who served in the Reagan administration in the Office of Policy Development and in George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Department as deputy assistant secretary for economic policy—makes a strong case in a new book critical of Bush’s grim economic record. Financing two wars, responding to domestic disasters and bucking up homeland security, all while granting tax cuts, has left us as a nation many days late and millions of dollars short in fulfilling a collective mission.

Sorely lacking in preparedness in critical health issues, our government is now giving us the bird. Renowned avian flu expert Robert Webster warned ABC News last week that there were “about even odds at this time for the (H5N1) virus to learn how to transmit human to human.” He cautioned, “Society just can’t accept the idea that 50 percent of the population could die.”

Sky-is-falling-rhetoric for some, but we are about as prepared today to confront a flu pandemic, as we are to tackle trillions in debt. Head Boy Scout Bush seems to have forgotten the motto. Anyone got a spare handbook?

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