In the great maelstrom over the federal budget deficits, there are two kinds of congressmen: those who talk about the need to reduce them and those who do something about it.
Until the past couple of weeks, U. S. Reps. Mike Ross and Marion Berry of the Fourth and First districts of Arkansas were in the second category. Back in 2001 and 2003, when President Bush asked Congress to slash taxes, mainly on the very wealthy, Ross and Berry voted no. They said the tax cuts were aimed too much for the rich, but primarily they predicted they would lead to massive deficits. They proved to be right. The country fell into deficit spending in 2002 and has slipped deeper into the chasm with almost every passing year.
They opposed the big Medicare prescription-drug act of 2003 because it made no effort to control drug and insurance costs and was not paid for. They were right again. Since going into effect in 2005, the drug law has added more than $600 billion to the national debt. The new national health- insurance law will shave a few hundred billion dollars from that deficit over the next decade but not nearly enough.
Throughout the decade Ross and Berry voted against extending the Bush tax cuts when they expired, although they came around to President Obama’s idea this year of extending the tax cuts for every family earning less than $250,000 a year, which is 98 percent of taxpayers.
That is a pretty consistent record that is becoming for the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, who say that their chief objective is to restore the budget to balance. We should point out that our own congressman, Vic Snyder, had an equally good record on deficit control and actually an even better one. He opposed going to war and financing the wars by borrowing the money, to the tune of nearly $1 trillion.
But Snyder is still consistent. He supports extending the tax cuts for all but the top 1 to 2 percent of taxpayers, those earning above $250,000 a year. The richest taxpayers would get the same tax cut that the other 98 percent did but not the extra gravy that President Bush ladled out for them in 2001 and 2003.
Last week, Berry and Ross joined with more than three dozen other Blue Dog Democrats to tell the president and the House leadership that they would join the Republicans in demanding that the rich, who already pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than everyone else, keep the extra bonanza that they won in 2001 and 2003. Their stance killed any chance to fix the tax system before the election and perhaps afterward.
It is no secret why they switched after nine years. They worry that the Republican propaganda machine is too powerful and that voters have been convinced that if the millionaires have to pay a little more in taxes, the economic system will collapse.
They would rather switch than fight.
There are not many ways to get back to a balanced budget, and every one is hard. The biggest step would be a growing economy, preferably the robust growth that we saw in the eight years before the tax cuts. Merely returning to the anemic growth of the middle of the past decade would help. Returning to the government revenue levels of even 2007 would cut the deficit in half.
Ending the two expensive Middle East wars would help, too, but President Obama seems trapped in those adventures.
Halting the spiral of health-care spending is vital but the health reform bill will go only part of the way and not for several years. Congress did not have the will or the votes for the hard steps.
Congress could sharply cut Social Security and disability benefits or postpone them for retiring seniors, but every member of Congress of both parties swears he will not do that. The same for Medicare benefits.
That leaves the revenue side as the best hope for closing the deficit. Extending the reduced marginal income-tax rate for the richest people and the tax advantages for investment income will add $700 billion to the deficit over the next decade. Let’s do it, Ross and Berry now say.
Nine years of being right was too much for them. Now they want to be wrong a while. At exactly the worst moment.