Every two years, politicians of both parties pledge on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November to stop wasteful spending and make government work harder for the health and welfare of the nation. But sometime after noon on the third day of January, many of them slip into the mindset of the addict.
Just one more earmark. A balanced budget, next year. This is our last omnibus spending bill, I swear.
More than temptation is at work here — even more than the glad-handing of special interest lobbyists and the donations of political action committees. A belief system prevails on Capitol Hill that holds as its primary article of faith that every district, every state, indeed every person can and should get back from Congress in the form of perks and benefits more than they send to Washington in taxes.
To any person of sound mind, such a belief is obviously implausible. It's the political equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, promising endless returns on limited investments. Eventually the money runs out, even in Washington, where the results of eight years of fiscal profligacy were met in 2009 with two additional years of more — more spending, more deficits, more quantitative easing.
The United States has been on a 10-year bender under Tom DeLay Republicans and Nancy Pelosi Democrats, stumbling down a path of debt monetization and currency devaluation well-trodden by economic invalids in the Third World, Argentina and, lately, Greece. Will the resolutions for sobriety in 2011 meet with any more success than in years past?
There's good reason for pessimism. In December, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued its recommendations — sort of. The 10-year plan to put the United States back on sound fiscal footing received support from 11 of the commission's 18 members. That was three short of the 14 votes needed to officially endorse the blueprint and send it to Congress.
"After all the talk about debt and deficits," the commission's final report states starkly, "it is long past time for America's leaders to put up or shut up. The era of debt denial is over."
One month later, its recommendations are largely shelved and forgotten, along with those of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force and the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, which also issued plans.
Still, there's some cause for optimism. The fact that three bipartisan groups that include quite a few political heavyweights — Paul Volcker, Alice Rivlin, Tom Coburn, Max Baucus and Paul Ryan, to name a few — are working on serious debt-reduction plans is a sobering sign. Our $14 trillion national debt hasn't gone away. Neither will the efforts of sensible people to find common ground in promoting governmental abstinence.
The November election was a referendum on the size and scope of government. A Congress infused with the temperate effects of independent voters and tea party members who determined its results may act differently from previous ones.
During the lame-duck session, Democrats brought forward a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill with 6,630 earmarks, many of them from Republicans who had just pledged to go cold turkey. You could see some of the old spenders wavering. You could read their minds: "Just one more."
In the end, Republicans — including Sens. John Cornyn and John Thune — repudiated their own earmarks and stopped the spending bill.
"Old habits aren't easy to break," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a recovering earmarker, explained on the floor of the Senate. "It's time for some of us in Washington to show in every way possible that we mean what we say about spending."
Admission is the first step on the road to fiscal recovery. But it's still far too early to tell whether the era of debt denial is truly over.
E-mail Jonathan Gurwitz at firstname.lastname@example.org