Today, I want to discuss a better way forward: a fiscal solution based on reality, not ideology; one that asks for common contributions so we can achieve fiscal discipline fairly. Whether we all contribute our fair share—or whether ordinary Americans without political connections contribute more than their share—will determine whether the urgent challenge of confronting our debt brings our nation together, or pulls it further apart.
Republicans’ threat to default on the full faith and credit of the United States ignores that their own fiscal policies helped get us where we are today. Let’s recall that Republicans raised the debt ceiling seven separate times under President Bush—and, more to the point, just passed a budget that itself would require a $9 trillion increase in the debt limit over the coming decade.
Failing to raise the debt ceiling isn’t like cutting up your credit cards. It’s like failing to pay your mortgage or your children’s college loans—ruining your credit and crippling your family’s future. When you’re faced with debt, the responsible answer isn’t to walk away from your bills. It’s to stop taking on new, unnecessary debt and to put yourself on a payment plan. Never before has America walked away from its bills. That is not the American way.
The problem, however, is not simply a threat to walk away from our bills. It’s that too many are calling for policies that don’t make fiscal sense. Speaker BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE insists on $2 trillion in unspecified cuts. But at the same time, he and his party support tax cuts that will cost more than twice as much over the next decade. These demands—for which Republicans are threatening to put at risk the American and global economies—are driven not by fiscal reality, but by an ideology that has guided them for at least 30 years.
In recent history, three of the most significant economic programs adopted by Congress have been the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, the Clinton budget of 1993, and the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003. Each time, Republicans have made the same economic claims: tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy will lead to gains for all of us; cutting taxes will increase revenue and reduce the deficit; and raising revenues will always result in an economic decline.
In 1981, President Reagan signed the largest tax cuts as a percentage of GDP in American history. He said—in a line that is still used almost verbatim by Republicans today—‘we don’t have a trillion-dollar debt because we have not taxed enough, but we have a trillion dollar debt because we spend too much.’ Republicans made the contradictory promises that cutting taxes would lead to higher revenues and would force lower spending. But what actually happened? Under President Reagan, the national debt increased by 189%.
And his economic plan did nothing to prevent the massive recession that hit the United States the next year, which led to the loss of 2.8 million jobs. In the face of those facts, even President Reagan moved away from Republican fiscal orthodoxy after 1981 and raised taxes 11 times.
In 1993, President Clinton proposed an economic program that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and that balanced the budget. It passed without a single Republican vote.
Now-Speaker Boehner said in 1993: ‘How does this create any new, real jobs?…There is no economic stimulus here; it is just more of the same—tax and spend.’
In reality, domestic discretionary spending went down as a share of the economy under President Clinton. 22.7 million jobs were created, the most of any single administration in history. And by the end of the decade, a booming economy and fiscal policies including the 1993 budget and the pay-as-you-go rule had produced four years of surpluses. We began the next decade with a record $5.6 trillion projected ten-year surplus. To be fair, a number of economic factors contributed to that success. But many argued that Democratic policies would cripple the economy. Those predictions were clearly, demonstrably wrong.
Because they failed to learn from those facts, the next time they were in power Republicans were again pushing deep tax cuts as a fiscal and economic cure-all.
President Bush said in 2001: ‘We can proceed with tax relief without fear of budget deficits, even if the economy softens.’
One might respond that it’s not fair to hold President Bush accountable for those words before 9/11 upended the economy. But here he is making the same promise in 2003: ‘Our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term.’
In fact, those deficits are still with us. President Bush’s policies wiped out the entire Clinton surplus and exploded the debt by 86%. It’s hard to imagine a fiscal record more profligate: approving tax cuts, wars, and a prescription drug entitlement, all without paying for them. These policies, combined with the economic collapse that took place on President Bush’s watch, are still the greatest drivers of our deficit—and the greatest reason we need to act to ensure that American pays what it owes.
During the Bush administration, middle-class income fell during a period of economic growth for the first recorded time in American history. Nearly 6 million Americans fell into poverty. And at the end of it all, on January 9, 2009, the Wall Street Journal looked back and found that the Bush administration produced ‘the worst track record for job creation since the government began keeping records.’
I haven’t reviewed this history to cast blame: what matters now is that both parties share responsibility. Neither party is without responsibility for the deficits and debt that confront us. And we have to solve our fiscal problems on a bipartisan basis. But it is essential that we learn from the mistakes of the past. The lessons are these: first, lower tax rates for the wealthy mean lower revenue. As David Stockman, President Reagan’s own budget director, put it, the persistence of the discredited view that they raise revenue is ‘a measure of how far off the deep end [some] have gone with this religious catechism about taxes.’
Second, tax cuts that primarily advantage the wealthiest among us have, in fact, been a major contributor to our debt.
Third, those who have pursued such policies are wrong when they claim a guaranteed link between lower taxes for the wealthy and shared prosperity. Lower taxes didn’t prevent a recession under President Reagan or middle-class stagnation followed by economic collapse under President Bush. Nor did the Clinton tax rates prevent a decade of historic prosperity.
But a flawed ideology is still informing Republican fiscal demands to this day. Why else would they insist that everything is on the table when it comes to getting us out of debt—except raising sufficient revenues to pay our bills and meet our responsibilities?
Why else would some falsely insist that their agenda—cuts to Medicare and other programs for the most vulnerable, and tax cuts for the wealthy—is the only possible answer to our debt?
It’s an incredible sleight-of-hand to suggest that our choices are between that plan and nothing. That’s just not true. In fact, we’ve seen a number of serious budget plans that are not based on widely disproven economics, and that do a much better job of protecting the middle class and bringing our budget to balance.
There are the plans put forward by the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission and a commission of the Bipartisan Policy Center, led by former OMB Director Alice Rivlin and former Senator Pete Domenici. Both of them place a higher priority on fairness, and strike a far more even balance between cutting spending and raising revenue, than the Republican plan. And I still have hopes that the bipartisan discussions in the Senate will result in a budget plan.
On top of those proposals, President Obama gave a speech with a plan of his own to reduce our debt by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. It subjects our entire budget, including defense spending, to the scrutiny we need to find savings. It calls for a fairer, simpler tax code. It builds on the health care savings in the Affordable Care Act. And it includes a ‘failsafe,’ so that if the debt is not projected to fall as a share of GDP by 2014, further deficit reductions will be required—and if Congress doesn’t make them, automatic reductions in spending programs and tax expenditures will be triggered.
It is essential that both parties come together and pay our bills, while laying out a long-term plan to control and substantially reduce our debt. It does not have to move at the very same time as an increase in the debt limit—although, if that could be done, it would be politically and fiscally appropriate. But now is the time to act. And we can only act if leaders in both parties are willing to make tough choices and oppose those who insist on an ‘all-or-nothing’ solution, from either ideological direction.
I’m going to talk about some of those tough choices, which must have bipartisan support if they have any chance of adoption. A responsible answer to our debt should have at least five elements: deficit-reducing tax reform; cuts to discretionary spending, both defense and non-defense; action to keep our entitlements strong; a failsafe mechanism; and fairness for all Americans.
First, we should broaden the tax base and reduce tax rates by closing tax loopholes and limiting other tax expenditures. And we should use part of the resulting savings to reduce the deficit. A simpler, more efficient income tax code would help more Americans make economic decisions based on what’s best for their families and businesses, rather than on maximizing their tax write-offs. And it would save some of the billions of dollars and the 225 million collective hours spent each year on tax preparation. While some have suggested closing specific loopholes and ending particular deductions, I believe that we should also consider limiting total deductions to a percentage of income. That would keep our tax code progressive as it reduces the deficit, and scale back those deductions that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest.
Now, some want to close loopholes, but they want to spend the savings on further tax cuts, rather than on reducing the deficit. I find that position hard to justify at a time when tax revenue as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since 1958. I find it even harder to justify after a decade in which the richest 1% saw their incomes increase by an average of $250,000 per person, while the bottom 90% actually saw their incomes decline in real terms. The fiscal costs of those priorities are spelled out in the budget plan that passed the House last month: it fails to balance the budget for two decades, if at all.
Second, we must continually review discretionary spending. That means we have to find savings in both domestic and defense programs—and it will mean reductions in programs I care about.
But let’s remember that the largest area of discretionary spending is defense. I have been a consistent supporter of America’s strong defense capability throughout my years in Congress. But being strong on defense should not be defined simply as spending more—it should be defined as spending wisely. Defense spending has nearly doubled since 2001—without even counting the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: he says that he sees ‘debt as the single biggest threat to our national security….Defense needs to be on the table, and I’m comfortable with that.’
No discretionary expenditure should go untested for need and effectiveness. President Obama has set as an objective cutting $400 billion from our defense budget over the next 12 years. With the nomination of Leon Panetta for Secretary of Defense, we have taken an important step in the right direction. We must maintain a strong defense capability, but we must have a serious, bipartisan conversation on defense spending.
Third, we need to keep our entitlement programs strong—programs that give millions of us, from all walks of life, a measure of dignity and security in times of sickness, need, and old age. Social Security is not a reason that we are approaching fiscal crisis; nevertheless, the Social Security trustees recently reported that the program, as it currently stands, will only be able to pay 100% of its obligations through 2036, and that payroll taxes are no longer able to cover current benefits. With those facts in mind, we should work to extend Social Security’s solvency on a parallel track with fiscal negotiations to keep it strong for generations to come.
As for health care costs and their impact on our deficits, we have seen two dramatically different approaches. One is the Affordable Care Act, which cut $500 billion from the Medicare program and was estimated by CBO to save over $200 billion in the first ten years and over $1 trillion in the second ten years—without ending the program’s guarantee or dramatically shifting costs onto tomorrow’s seniors. Rather, the Affordable Care Act took unprecedented steps to improve quality and increase efficiency and effectiveness in our Medicare and Medicaid programs: steps like preventing hospital-acquired infections, reducing preventable hospital readmissions, promoting accountable care organizations, and fostering improved coordination of care and efficiency with bundled payments. These policies have the potential to reduce health care costs for all Americans and constrain the long-term growth of our federal health care spending.
But we must always be looking for more—and that is why the Affordable Care Act also established the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. This center will operate as a health policy laboratory, where leading public and private sector experts in health care management and medicine can share their ideas about how to improve quality and lower costs in our federal health programs. The Center will research and test these innovative payment and service delivery ideas—and whenever those ideas bear fruit, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to automatically incorporate them into Medicare and Medicaid.
Others, by contrast, have committed themselves to a plan that ends the Medicare guarantee, transforming Medicare into a system that provides seniors with less coverage each year and raises their health care costs. But under that plan, according to CBO, seniors ‘would bear a much larger share of their health care costs than they would under the traditional program.’ Moreover, according to CBO, that plan would actually increase overall health care costs per beneficiary. And it would dismantle Medicaid, putting many seniors’ nursing home care at risk and cutting off care for the poor and disabled.
Supporters of this plan claim that it will spark cost-reducing competition for seniors’ health care dollars. But that claim is not backed up by the evidence. In fact, Medicare was created because so few private insurers were willing to cover seniors in the first place; and when seniors were covered, their choices were usually restricted to extremely limited plans at very high rates. That reluctance to cover seniors in the private market still exists—as evidenced by the fact that the Republican-created Medicare Advantage program had to offer private companies bonuses of anywhere from 5 to 50% more than traditional Medicare costs to get them to enter this market. It’s another stretch to claim that the result will be lower costs. Medicare Advantage, which already gives seniors the option of enrolling in private insurance, has not reduced costs—in fact, it has increased them.
The Republican plan also eliminates the delivery system reforms in the Affordable Care Act—along with insurance coverage for more than 40 million Americans, without any alternative. We all should value cost controls. I certainly do. But it seems that opponents of the Affordable Care Act have staked so much on their opposition that they won’t accept that it is already putting strong cost-controlling policies in place. This month’s Medicare trustees’ report, in fact, tells us that the Affordable Care Act is projected to reduce Medicare’s costs by some 25% over the next 75 years.
Fourth, the ‘failsafe’: we should enact legislation, on a bipartisan basis, that makes the changes necessary to put us on a path to bring down our debt. But we should also have a failsafe that can impose further cuts in spending and revenue raisers if we are not able to sufficiently decrease deficits and debt. Such a failsafe should affect both the spending and revenue sides of the equation and would include defense spending, without undermining our operational readiness. For this purpose, we could consider a system of targets and consequences much like the Bipartisan Policy Center’s SAVEGO proposal. A failsafe is an important part of our fiscal solution, because our problem is urgent: we know that when bond markets lose confidence in a country’s fiscal stability, the consequences can be extremely fast in coming.
Fifth and finally: our deficit is no excuse to abandon America’s commitment to fairness. The work of returning our nation to fiscal health requires common contributions from all of us. But, as the president’s fiscal commission and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s own fiscal plan both make clear, we can and must do so without increasing poverty and inequality.
In addition, I am a strong supporter of a statutory pay-go requirement. It should be reinstated and it should apply to both spending and taxes.
In times like these, when our nation’s problems grew too grave to ignore, leaders on both sides of the aisle have come together to restore our fiscal health and protect the programs that Americans value. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did it. George H.W. Bush and Dick Gephardt did it. Bill ClintonBill ClintonLarry Summers: Mnuchin squandering his credibility with Trump tax proposal Patagonia threatens to sue Trump over national monuments order Robert Siegel leaving NPR's 'All Things Considered' MORE and Newt Gingrich did it. Despite their wide differences, they agreed that the challenges they faced were too big for either side’s political bromides—as they are today. Both Democrats and Republicans, when the moment called for it, proved ready to look beyond their parties’ ideologies. And because extreme views did not dominate the political discourse, they avoided political paralysis.
Their success is no guarantee of ours. History is filled with the stories of great powers humbled by their debts—overwhelmed not simply by money owed, but by infighting, paralysis, a failure to engage with reality before it was too late. That can be our story, as well—and if it is, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
But it does not have to be our story. Setting our fiscal house in order, building a strong foundation for our children and grandchildren, can be the next great accomplishment in the unique history of this nation. It is still in our power to succeed where so many other powers have failed. It is not too late for us to write that story, and it is a privilege to have such a chance. Let’s live up to it.