Who blew up the bridge to the 21st century?

Brad Todd Founding Partner, OnMessage Inc.
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Wall Street is downgrading America’s sovereign credit rating because political gridlock means that Washington won’t be able to solve our financial problems any time soon. It’s all thanks to the transformation of one of our two political parties, a transformation that has paralyzed Congress and made the country’s entire balance sheet hostage to an uncompromising and unrealistic ideological fringe element.

That much you knew. The surprise is that the fringe element responsible for this chaos is not the Tea Party. It’s the math-numb, binge-spending, Flat Earth wing of the Democratic Party — the doctrinaire left that now has no intellectual rival inside President Obama’s electoral coalition.

Their hostage note comes in the form of blanket Democratic opposition, starting with the president, to the one fiscal policy defibrillator that ought to represent a bankruptcy-averting middle ground between left and right: a clean balanced-budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution.

By a “clean” BBA, I mean one that looks like the one passed by the U.S. House in 1995 and rejected by the Senate by one vote. That proposed constitutional change was simple: Congress would forever be prohibited from spending more than projected government revenue for a given year, barring a declared war or national security emergency.

In the ensuing 16 years, conservatives have gravitated toward an improved version of the BBA that would also require a congressional supermajority to raise taxes and an overall cap on government spending linked to the size of the economy. Before my fellow right-wing conspirators pop veins, let me state clearly that this tighter, tougher BBA is better policy; it just does not appear likely to get any Democratic votes in Congress in our lifetimes.

But the old, “clean” BBA once did get Democratic votes — lots of them. In 1995, it got 72 Democratic votes in the House, more than enough to help Republicans clear the required two-thirds vote for advancing a constitutional amendment.

The intractable point in today’s Congress is Democrats’ refusal to touch entitlement spending and Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes. Neither side is willing to chance a shift in that playing field.

Aside from their policy beliefs, Democrats believe entitlements are their silver bullet in elections and they want to preserve the ability to bludgeon Republicans for merely thinking of any potential change in entitlement benefits. My counterparts on the left are already dreaming up new ways to depict Republican congressmen throwing grandma off a cliff in advertising that’s coming to a TV set near you next fall.

The “clean” BBA would not compromise Democrats’ electoral positioning. This version of the BBA does not mandate that any program be cut, nor does it place any new numerical hurdles to the passage of tax increases to avoid such cuts. In an economic downturn, a simple majority of Congress would be all that’s necessary to raise taxes to pay for programs that same majority didn’t have the spine to cut.

If in fact Democratic political calculations are right, and Americans cherish their entitlements more than they oppose tax increases, then a BBA will yield Democrats a bounty of legislative scrums that they will win.

In these down years, Republicans presumably would seek to balance the budget by cutting programs beloved by the masses, while Democrats would defend those programs and instead advocate tax increases on some narrow unlucky class of Americans to pay for them. These fracases would bear striking resemblance to the one President Obama and his congressional allies sought, we assume with forethought, this spring and summer.

Republicans should also embrace this kind of “clean” BBA because we have similar faith in our ideology and our political calculations. If Americans are as grown-up as we say they are, they’ll accept a live-within-your-means approach in any future budget crisis, and reward us conservatives electorally for preventing more confiscation of Americans’ hard-earned bread. As true-believing conservatives, we should be willing to take that bet.

Because the “clean” BBA sets up clear ideological choices, without the gimmickry of carve-out categories of spending not subject to its mandate (a Democrat favorite) or the tilted playing field of artificial barriers to spending and tax-raising (a conservative favorite), it represents the best potential middle-ground in what most Americans agree is an imperative: changing Washington’s budgetary framework.

The sad truth, however, is that even if Republicans in the House could be persuaded to offer a “clean” BBA, and if such a proposal could get all 240 Republican votes, it would today have scant hope of getting the 51 Democrats needed to send it on to the Senate. The Flat Earthers just won’t let it happen, in defiance of every flashing warning light in America’s financial cockpit.

Much as only the unstable and the insane denied the Earth’s spherical nature after Magellan had circumnavigated the globe, only the professional left in Washington denies that we have a structural spending problem. It has not always been so.

President Clinton bragged about budget balancing throughout his second term. His last State of the Union address included a challenge to pay off the entire national debt by 2013. His top budget officer, Franklin Raines, boasted to Congress in 1998 about the Clinton administration’s success at reducing the federal workforce and shrinking the size of government relative to gross domestic product to historically low levels.

This was not a Republican administration, mind you, albeit one that had a conservative Congress over its shoulder much like President Obama has today. But Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party is a distant memory — as Hillary Clinton learned the hard way.

A glance at the 72 Democrats who supported the BBA in 1995 reads like a trip through an archaeology museum full of extinct taxidermy.

Over half of the budget-balancing Democrats in 1995 were of the rural Blue Dog variety, but Republicans now hold 31 of those same districts today.

The other primary source of Democratic BBA votes in 1995 was a pool of congressmen from blue-collar districts in the East, the Rust Belt and the Rio Grande Valley. A handful of those guys are still around, but most are like Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and have undergone a change in perspective as their caucus slid left beneath them. Hoyer not only voted for the balanced-budget amendment in 1995, he spoke on the floor advocating its passage. In 2011, he’ll be the lead vote-counter trying to defeat the BBA.

A similar transformation happened at the White House. While President Clinton talked of paying down the debt as a national goal, President Obama only talks about reducing annual deficits, acquiescing to an addiction to borrowed money in perpetuity.

In 1996, as Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for re-election, he urged us to build a bridge to the 21st century, a span all Americans could cross together.

In its statement announcing the downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, S&P’s analysts complained “the differences between political parties have proven extraordinarily difficult to bridge.” They’re right about that. But it is the extreme and intransigent left of the Democratic Party that has pushed the plunger and blown up its end of the bridge.

Brad Todd is a Republican campaign message and advertising strategist. In 2010, his firm On Message Inc. advised Sen. Ron Jonson (R-WI), Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), the National Republican Congressional Committee and 9 Republican candidates who took over Democratic congressional seats. The opinions expressed here are his own.