Putting the Budget Back on the Hits List

January 28, 2002

As President Bush prepares to give his State of the Union address and submit his budget to Congress, there is little hope that one of his legislative and fiscal priorities for the next year will be balancing the federal budget.

Just over a year ago, a random sample of 450 leading US historians and political scientists rated the 30-year effort to balance the budget as Washington’s eighth- greatest post-World War II achievement.

Interviewed by the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service, these academics ranked balancing the budget ahead of providing healthcare to the elderly, and just behind building the Interstate Highway System. They saw balancing the budget as one of the government’s most difficult problems to solve. Achieving it allowed the nation to trim interest payments on the national debt, which freed up money for other national priorities such as healthcare for the poor.

What a difference a year makes! With the economy in the doldrums, $ 1.5 trillion gone in last summer’s tax cut, and spending associated with Sept. 11, the balanced budget is no more. The nation now faces at least two years of deficits, a spike in long-term interest rates, and no end in sight for the costly spending necessitated by the war on terrorism. Right now, given the fact that the budget remained balanced for only about two years, scholars would hardly give it the same success rating. In fact, the quick unbalancing of the budget could be ranked as one of Washington’s greatest failures.

No wonder Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is angry. He was part of the long march to a balanced budget during the ’80s and ’90s. He was in Congress in 1988 when the elder Bush said, “Read my lips: No new taxes,” and was there last month when the younger Bush said “not over my dead body” to any rollback of last summer’s tax cut. To quote Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again.

The Bush administration isn’t all to blame for the budget woes. Congress has also overspent in the past six months, with billions in pork-barrel spending that brought little in greater homeland security, stronger national defense, or help for the poor. Both parties oversold the surplus’s size in the 2000 campaign. To reposition the balanced budget once again as a great achievement, Congress and the president need to remember the following:

First, balancing the budget involved compromises in the Capitol and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. As with winning the cold war and expanding voting rights, both of which made the list of government’s top 20 achievements of the past 50 years, neither party can take credit for balancing the budget.

Second, balancing the budget involved perseverance. Like rebuilding Europe after World War II, which took decades, Congress and the president began working to cut the deficit years before the first hints of a surplus.

Third, balancing the budget did not involve a single great law. Rather, like reducing workplace discrimination and improving air and water quality, balancing the budget involved incremental adjustments to existing laws, including three budget agreements, constant enforcement, and a good deal of trial and error.

Finally, balancing the budget required the courage to take unpopular positions. The elder Bush likely would have won reelection had he stuck to his “no new taxes” pledge, while Mr. Daschle and his Democrats probably could have held their congressional majority in 1994 had they not agreed to tax increases and spending cuts the year before.

As the history of the budget shows, it may be hard to make the list of government’s greatest achievements, but it’s easy to fall off. This is equally true for all of government’s great achievements.