Here's a question: How can you tell which political party is out of power?
Answer: It is the party that cares most about the federal deficit.
Strong concern for the deficit usually equates to a party in the political wilderness searching for its moral voice. The budget deficit, simply stated, occurs when government spends more money than it takes in, and it has become the red herring du jour.
The deficit is real and should not be taken lightly. But with the exception of organizations such as the Concord Coalition, it is the minority party that tends to be more concerned with how the federal government spends its resources.
The chorus of Republican deficit hawks sang several octaves lower when it was their party borrowing money to finance two wars and passing excessive tax cuts.
It was Democrats, leading the deficit charge, accusing President George W. Bush and the Republican-led Congress of squandering the surplus achieved in the Bill Clinton years, and forcing future generations to pay for their lack of fiscal responsibility.
According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, late in 2002, he pleaded with the Bush administration, already running a deficit of approximately $158 billion, that it was risking a financial crisis.
Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly responded to O'Neill by saying: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
Deficits do matter. Deficits should matter regardless of which party is in power. But in the public conversation, deficits are merely a rhetorical tool to prove politically that the party in power is irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.
We've changed presidential administrations and control of Congress, and the Republicans have magically rediscovered their concern for fiscal discipline that lay dormant when they were the party that controlled the White House and Capitol Hill for six of the past eight years.
This comes from the same party that was blatantly silent during the tax cuts by the Bush administration that failed the make the corresponding spending reductions. That came in addition to borrowing money to pay for two wars that did not have a line item in the federal budget. Now this party is suddenly outraged by the potential cost of health care legislation and the impact it could have on the federal deficit.
The deficit was not an issue for congressional Republicans as they signed off on a misguided war in Iraq, which claimed the lives of more than 4,300 American soldiers and many Iraqis. Now when the issue becomes health care for 47 million of their neighbors, there's a problem.
Republicans are justified to raise concerns about the deficit, which currently as a percentage of the gross domestic product, is at its highest point since World War II. The Congressional Budget Office recently stated this year's budget deficit is nearly $1.7 trillion, more than $400 billion larger than forecast two months ago. Moreover, the deficit by the end of 2010 is projected to be nearly $430 billion more than its prior forecast.
According to the CBO, the increases are largely due to the sharp rise in spending largely due to the fiscal stimulus required for saving the financial system.
Large deficits devalue currency, which leads to inflation. At what point would the U.S. inflation discourage China from lending money so that we can sustain our ravenous consumer appetite?
Moreover, if the impending health care legislation becomes an entitlement, can it be sustained given the trajectory of the deficit?
It is hard to take GOP deficit criticisms seriously given the previous eight years of fiscal mismanagement. Listening to the Republicans' present concerns, one would think these problems began on Obama's inauguration day.
The legitimacy of Republican deficit concerns is undercut by the hypocrisy of the party's recent actions. Democrats and Republicans share the mantle of being historically disingenuous in the deficit debate. Recent history would also suggest that deficits are seldom addressed when one party controls Capitol Hill and the White House.
But the deficit, as a serious issue, has been diminished by the screech of political partnership. Shouldn't this be an ongoing concern that transcends political ideology instead of the hypocritical rejoinder of a party down to its last legitimate dissenting argument?
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com