August 5, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt
At the eleventh hour, Congress met the debt-ceiling deadline by kicking the can down the road. President Obama can increase the borrowing limit this year, and next, with a potential increase over $2 trillion by 2013. The law mandates spending cuts of $1 trillion over the next ten years. Additional cuts of around $1.5 trillion will be the responsibility of a twelve-member bipartisan Congressional commission, to be reported by November 23 and voted on a month later. If Congress fails to vote for these recommended cuts, automatic cuts will be triggered, also over ten years, split evenly between domestic and defense spending.
In political terms, the House and Senate votes this week mark a Tea Party triumph, and a victory of sorts for House Speaker John Boehner. Together they had the best of the deal, which features significant spending cuts but no new taxes. To add irony to injury—for the protracted crisis over the debt ceiling has surely done nothing for the sluggish economy—many of the Tea Party’s representatives promptly voted against the deal. The cuts were not large enough and did not target major entitlement programs like Medicaid and Social Security. Unless the new commission cuts tax loopholes as well as programs by the end of the year, however, not a penny of new revenue will have contributed to our long-term economic health. By any measure, the agreement falls in line with Tea Party goals.
In surveys conducted during the last weeks of the crisis, a large majority of the public favored an approach that combined both spending cuts and new taxes. The majority is right.
The New Testament teaches that government is “ordained by God” to protect the innocent, bring wrongdoers to justice, and to create conditions for human flourishing—not to do nothing. Christians understand government as one instrument for the stewardly task to which God calls us. It is therefore a necessity, not an option.
Living within one’s means is no less a government responsibility than a personal or family one, even when government acts to defend the nation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may or may not have been justified according to the criteria of Just War. What cannot be justified is the government’s failure to pay for those wars by asking citizens to make financial sacrifices. In wartime, the entire nation ought to be placed on a war footing. The refusal to do so brought the “no new taxes” fetish to a new low and helped set the table for the current crisis.
At one remove from the dollars and cents and the various “pledges” to unelected interest groups made to shoo primary challengers away from gerrymandered safe seats, the current crisis reflects a set of attitudes towards government as old as the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration does not describe a philosophy of governing, but only places a boundary, made up of the inalienable rights of human beings, around government. The Constitution, which does articulate a governing philosophy in the structures of American federalism, has never seized the cultural imagination to the same extent. Indeed, its principal construct, the Federal Government, has always attracted deep suspicion.
The Tea Party has orchestrated the most recent attempt, successful as far as this week’s vote is concerned, to transform the Constitution back into the Declaration of Independence. Successful, perhaps, but mistaken. Societies need a philosophy of government as well as limits to government’s authority, because government has real work to do.
Those who concede this point but insist that “no new taxes” relates to policy experience rather than political principle should note that the Reagan and Clinton eras both featured tax increases and robust growth. Conservative claims about the relationship between taxes and economic growth contain truth in the abstract but are conditioned by circumstances. Better the old joke about the certainty of death and taxes than the expensive fantasies currently being entertained about the latter.
—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College.