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Readers Blog: Art's Milwaukee

Deficits and Debt Out of Control?

The spirit of bipartisanship has not yet transformed intensely partisan Washington D.C., but is evident in substantive as well as symbolic ways. Members of Congress may not be tossing bouquets across the partisan divide, but they did blur party lines in sitting together for Pres. Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

            One colorful seated Congressional couple was Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, and Sen. Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York. Both have prickly partisan postures in Washington and beyond.

            Coburn's nickname is "Doctor No." He has an M.D., but the sobriquet reflects his strident opposition to spending, especially earmarks introduced into bills to address specific constituency and interest group demands. Schumer, third ranking in the Senate's Democratic Party leadership, recently stated that proposed Republican legislation to repeal health care reform is "as full of holes as Swiss cheese."

            In immediate and very somber terms, the shooting rampage in Tucson Arizona which resulted in six people dead, including a nine-year-old girl, and thirteen wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, no doubt has encouraged a less argumentative atmosphere in Washington, at least for the moment.

            Pres. Obama referred with feeling to the tragedy and to Representative Giffords at the start of his address.

            However, even without the grotesque barrage in Tucson, Congress would be toning down the rhetoric. Opinion polls show public dissatisfaction with Washington's intense, often petty bickering between the parties, along with growing alarm at debt levels.

            The strident Tea Party movement, and the success of their candidates in Wisconsin and elsewhere during the 2010 elections, directly reflects the most extreme populist pressures against the Washington status quo. Indirectly, the movement mirrors much broader, yet still strong currents of public sentiment.

            The new Congress has just been sworn in but already is moving to respond to the election returns. By a vote of 92 to 4, the Senate has agreed to end "secret holds," a practice whereby legislators could anonymously freeze legislation or appointments.

            More informally, in the Senate both parties have agreed to be more collegial in handling debate, their most visible activity and arguably ultimately the most important for the senior legislative body.

            Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, has pledged to give the opposition party more opportunities to offer amendments. In turn, Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has stated the minority will be more restrained in using the filibuster to frustrate passage of legislation.

            In the House, the new Republican majority, which contains a number of Tea Party members, is moving aggressively and quickly to press for spending cuts on virtually all fronts of federal activity. Pres. Obama reflected this changed political reality in his address, though his message about spending was ambiguous.

            Whatever the political state of play, effective analysis must include wider economic context, and this picture is encouraging. Current projections put the federal deficit at approximately 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), high but hardly unprecedented. During World War II, U.S. government deficits reached 30 percent and well over 100 percent of the annual federal budget.

            Our greatest asset is the incredible economic growth of the past seventy years. Despite recessions, on average U.S. GDP has approximately doubled every decade since 1940.

            Historically, as public debt has grown, political leaders have cut back. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in particular stand out for fiscal restraint. Obama should be measured against this standard.

            Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War". Contact him at



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