Congress isn't always the first place you look for intellectually honest discussion of America's fiscal dilemmas. Neither party has clean hands, yet each points smudged fingers at the other. How refreshing then to hear Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) uttering blunt truths rather than partisan cant about America's exploding debts.
"Unfortunately, we can blame our long-term deficit on policies that are almost universally popular," the House Majority Leader said yesterday at a forum hosted by Third Way. "We're lying to ourselves and our children if we say we can maintain our current levels of entitlement spending, defense spending, and taxation without bankrupting the country," he added.
Hoyer also wondered aloud about the wisdom of permanently extending any of the Bush tax cuts absent a serious plan for long-term deficit reduction. It's a pertinent question for both Republican anti-tax zealots and President Obama.
Even as they excoriate Obama and the Democrats for ballooning the federal deficit, Republicans insist that all the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 be extended. That would cost a cool $3 trillion over the next decade, but don't expect the GOP to fill that gaping hole in the federal budget with spending cuts. As Hoyer pointed out, Republicans have run like scalded dogs from Rep. Paul Ryan's "roadmap" to a balanced budget, which calls for deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
But President Obama is in a bind as well. He has set up a fiscal commission to come up with a plan after the midterm election to start unwinding America's massive debts. Many economists believe such a plan is essential to boost investor and lender confidence in the soundness of the U.S. economy, and to reverse the enormous imbalances in world financial flows.
During the 2008 campaign, however, Obama promised to extend the Bush cuts for the "middle class," which he defined as families earning less than $250,000 and individuals earning less than $200,000. That promise helped him deflect GOP efforts to brand him as an inveterate tax hiker. But it carries a high price tag: about $1.4 trillion over the next decade according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
What's more, the nation's fiscal outlook has deteriorated dramatically since the campaign. Massive public spending to avert a financial and economic collapse last year could push this year's deficit to a record $1.7 trillion. The national debt now stands at about $13 trillion, and is on course to reach 90 percent of GDP by 2020 - not far from Greek-style proportions.
America really can't afford any of the Bush tax cuts right now. Letting them expire would give the fiscal commission more room to devise a balanced package of spending and tax reforms aimed at whittling down our debts.
But with unemployment stuck in the stratosphere, and with Democrats apparently facing sizable losses in the midterm election, it's hard to ask them to expose middle-class families to higher taxes - especially when Republicans can be counted on to indulge in monolithic, over-the-top demagoguery.
GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time in unloading on Hoyer yesterday. "It's now official. Top Democrats on Capitol Hill are starting to signal their intention to raise taxes on the middle class," he declared on the Senate floor.
To limit the long-term fiscal impact, centrist Democrats like Hoyer are considering a temporary extension of the middle-class tax cuts. Many liberals, however, are more concerned about the supposed dangers of "austerity" than the nation's colossal debt burden. In fact, they want to make the cuts permanent now, while Democrats still enjoy big majorities in both Houses.
So chances are Congress will extend the middle-class tax cuts this fall, setting a less-than-inspiring example of restraint for the fiscal commission.
Nonetheless, Hoyer said House Democrats are pushing a budget resolution that would limit discretionary spending; cut deeper than the president's budget; reinforce PAYGO rules; and commit to a vote on the fiscal commission's recommendations. It's a modest down payment on fiscal reform that's unlikely to suppress demand and throw the economy into a tailspin.
In any case, the contrast between Hoyer's fiscal realism and the GOP's denial couldn't be sharper. Let's hope Democrats follow their leader.
Will Marshall is the President and Founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.