In praise of gridlock

There’s something to be said for political gridlock, and the voters may say it this fall. Oh for the good old days under President Clinton, when the government tried to live within its means.

The national debt recently approached its $8.2 trillion statutory limit, which would have forced the government to stop borrowing. Congress responded as it always does, by raising the debt limit: this time to $9 trillion.

The federal government’s borrowing cap has now been raised four times since President Bush was sworn into office. The latest increase will not be the last. According to the government’s current deficit-spending projections, the national debt (the sum of all the annual budget deficits the country has ever run) will probably have to be increased another $2.5 trillion over the next five years.

Bush’s proposed $2.8 trillion budget for fiscal year 2007 preaches deficit reduction. But seeing is believing. The White House predicts that the annual deficit will rise this year to $423 billion, or 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), then decline gradually to just 1.2 percent of GDP by 2011.

The Bush administration asserts that the key is spending restraint, but its recent track record is not encouraging. Although the budget deficit declined last year to 2.6 percent of GDP (after increasing sharply from 2002 through 2004), none of that decrease came from spending cuts. The deficit shrank because tax revenues rose sharply.

The White House asserts that Congress last year “achieved $6.5 billion in savings by acting on 89 of the 154 discretionary programs the administration targeted for termination or reduction.” It fails to note, however, that the president actually proposed $20 billion in spending cuts last year. Most of these proposals went nowhere. Some, such as cutting farm subsidies, met with stiff congressional resistance.

Congress should not, however, take all the blame. One could argue that the president failed to put his political muscle behind last year’s proposals. It is easy for the administration to announce plans to reform or cut this or that program; the test is how much political capital it is willing to use to achieve the goal. And frankly it didn’t use much. Not surprisingly, this year’s budget calls for just $15 billion in spending cuts.

The $6.5 billion in claimed savings last year was a drop in the bucket, of course, compared with the $400 billion deficit. Besides, the modest savings were more than offset by various “supplemental” appropriations that the president had requested from Congress. Last year alone, the president requested an extra $82 billion for Afghanistan, Iraq, national security, and tsunami relief, and another $62 billion for Hurricane Katrina cleanup. This year, he has already requested an additional $73 billion supplemental appropriation for Iraq.

Such requests are understandable when they respond to natural disasters or unforeseen needs in the war against terrorism. They are unacceptable when they are made for political reasons, to fund expenses that should have been and probably were anticipated when the original budget was submitted, such as money for continuing Iraq operations. By leaving items out of the regular budget and later asking for supplemental funds, the administration makes its annual budget proposal comparatively reasonable and lean. Congress goes along with the game.

The undisciplined spending and large deficits of the past few years contrast sharply with the 1990s, when federal budget deficits disappeared and spending shrank as a share of GDP. Fiscally, Bill Clinton was more of a conservative than George Bush.

Then again, Clinton had to deal with the opposition party’s control of Congress. The Republicans often blocked Clinton’s spending initiatives, just as he blocked some of theirs. The resulting gridlock helped keep spending in check.

The Republicans have controlled Congress and the White House for more than five years now. The party that allegedly stands for smaller government has cut taxes, but that’s not the same thing as cutting government. It might take political gridlock to accomplish that.

Until then, the deficits and the debt will continue to mount.

(Kerry Lynch is director of research at the American Institute for Economic Research (, in Great Barrington, Mass.)