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Charles Arlinghaus: Rudman reminds us just how bad things are

December 05. 2012 12:06AM

The memorial service for the late former Sen. Warren Rudman served to remind us of a great public servant, and it gave us a chance to go back and read some of his speeches and reflect that in the 20 years since he retired from office, things have gotten worse, his more outlandish predictions are commonplace, and no serious effort to address the deficit has occurred. The pathetic debate in Washington over the deficit sounds like a satire constructed to make a point.

Warren Rudman served in the U.S. Senate from 1980-1992 in the seat now filled by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (something about the seat itself apparently makes one a deficit hawk). He was known for many things during his time in the Senate, but we remember him best today for an unflinching attack on the federal deficit. The Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law is a model for today's weak-kneed politicians to force discipline on themselves.

The people we as a nation had the poor sense to elect to supposedly represent us in Washington amount to a 435-member bowl of jelly wobbling about. Occasionally, they lurch into action and do something, but those incidents are rare.

Reading some comments from Sen. Rudman's retirement speech reminds one how far we haven't come. Keep in mind that Rudman announced his retirement in March of 1992, more than 20 years ago. Some things haven't changed a bit since then. Rudman was concerned about a ridiculously high deficit and the inability of lawmakers to address it.

After the Gramm-Rudman law had reduced the annual deficit from 29 percent of revenues to 15 percent of revenues, it was repealed largely because lawmakers preferred "flexibility" to actual discipline. The budget deficit began to rise and would almost double in three years - from $152 billion in 1989, the last year of Gramm-Rudman, to $290 billion in 1992, when Rudman retired.

Rudman's warning resonates today. In his retirement speech, he warned about growing deficits: "with a federal budget deficit reaching $400 billion, with a country in economic disarray; how can we responsibly stand on this floor and talk about doing anything that has even the slightest chance of adding, not a dime, but a penny to a budget deficit?"

Rudman would leave the Senate and together with former Sen. Paul Tsongas pressure lawmakers from the right and left to focus on the deficit and what he considered an achievable goal of a balanced budget.

Those without short memories will remember that the debate in the middle 1990s was not over whether to balance the budget. It was a question of timing. As the economy started to boom, both parties wanted to use the economic growth to balance the budget. Republicans, taking their cues largely from Rudman in this respect, attacked President Clinton for not acting fast enough because he was willing to take 10 years to balance the budget. They insisted it happen in five lest the economic growth not be directed to achieving responsibility.

An election landslide for the Republicans in 1994 came after a campaign based in part on balancing the budget in five years. That landslide created the impetus for both parties to support balance as a goal. They disagreed bitterly on many things, but the budget was balanced in just four years by a Republican Congress and a Democratic President.

Today we have a similar divided government (although Congress itself is divided this time). Deficits are ridiculous by Rudman's standards: The deficit isn't $290 billion, it's almost $1.2 trillion. It isn't a completely ridiculous 29 percent of revenue, it's nearly 50 percent of revenue.

And yet the debate in Washington is completely unfocused. Lawmakers are proposing talking about this or that (closing tax loopholes, raising tax rates, caps on discretionary spending, serious entitlement reform perhaps) but no one is suggesting it is possible to balance the budget. All lawmakers are being asked to sacrifice political principle in the goal of making things not quite as bad.

That's pathetic. You can't balance a budget if you don't set a goal of balancing the budget. You can't ask politicians to give way on deeply held political principles to make things somewhat less bad.

Someone in the malarial swamp on the north bank of the Potomac needs to set a goal of actually balancing the budget in a set number of years (I'd suggest five). You can't reach a goal if you don't set a goal. Set a goal, balance the budget, do something for a change.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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