A sign at the Tupelo “tea party” protesting federal government spending last week asked the question, “Can we lay off Congress?” The answer is yes: We get that chance every two years for all House members and for a third of the Senate. In a republic, that is the ultimate power held by the people.
The American people elected the current president and Congress a few short months ago, and it’s a hard stretch to say that the policies enacted so far are somehow a big surprise. Trillion-dollar expenditures in response to the financial crisis did, after all, precede the election and were supported by both presidential candidates and formulated by the sitting Republican administration. The Obama initiatives in Congress, including tax policy, were all enunciated on the campaign trail.
The claim in last week’s rallies across the nation that Congress and the administration are ignoring the people’s will itself ignores the fact that the people, if they were paying attention, knew pretty much what they would get with a Democratic victory in Congress and the White House.
A solid 60 percent of the electorate still believes the new president is doing a good job, so the political dissent expressed last week – not overtly partisan, though clearly with a Republican tint – is largely a minority view in the nation as a whole. While there is unquestionably widespread unease about the additional debt we are piling up with spending measures designed to jump-start the economy, there is still political latitude for what Congress and the administration are doing.
If the strategy appears to be working, it will be affirmed at the polls in 2010. If it doesn’t, there will be congressional layoffs.
Undisciplined spending is hardly new in Congress, and it has been a very long time since fiscal conservatism was in vogue. For the last 28 years under both Republican and Democratic administrations, we have been the proverbial cake-eaters – we want lower taxes and higher spending. We do not wish to make a choice between the two.
We have griped continuously about the profligate ways of members of Congress, yet we have made it clear to them politically that if they cut any programs we feel entitled to – and certainly if they raise our taxes – it’ll be off with their heads. So they pander to us.
President Obama says hard choices will be unavoidable soon and that he intends to present them. We will see if he really means it. But the test of our fiscal responsibility will be our willingness to make such choices.
This is not about the drop-in-the-bucket expenditures on earmarks, which our Republican representatives and senators from Mississippi have been the masters at securing. It’s not about eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” either.
It’s about things as fundamental as whether Social Security benefits should be cut, Medicare and Medicaid sustained, and taxes increased to keep them all solvent. It’s about whether we overhaul health care policy or not, and if so, how will we pay for it up front. It’s about whether we cut costly but outdated military expenditures, even if it means lost jobs for defense contractors in the states or districts of powerful members of Congress.
It’s about whether federal taxes, which are well below the levels of a couple of decades ago and, for most Americans, still going down, must go back up at some point to pay for what we have decided we want government to do. Little discussed in all the talk about spending is that the Obama tax cut just passed as part of the stimulus bill is the largest single tax cut in U.S. history – $282 billion of the $787 billion legislation – on the heels of Bush tax cuts that held the previous distinction. In one sense, the cycle continues: even lower taxes, much higher spending, soaring deficits.
If we had a direct democracy – the people voting on everything – taxes would probably be even lower and spending higher. As it is, we give the clear signal to congressmen and senators (and presidents) that we don’t want them to ask too much of us when it comes to fiscal responsibility – which is why we don’t get it. And then we complain.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.