If you’re old enough and followed politics long enough—and I confess to both—you’ve probably heard of Senator Everett Dirksen’s famous quip, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Some claim the actual statement was “a million here, a million there” but, let’s face it, if one adjusts for inflation, “billion” may be just about right. Sad to say, Dirksen confessed he never made the comment, adding that it was so good that he really had no desire to publicly disclaim it.
Yet Dirksen really was concerned about Congress’s profligate spending. If we’re to believe the Congressional Record, he offered these memorable remarks on the floor of the Senate, June 16, 1965:
“One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told me a story about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy. He said, ‘Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep. Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet. How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?’
“Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and said, ‘How are you getting along?’ Johnny said, ‘Teacher, if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils, I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that cat in hell.’
“If some people get any cheer out of a $328 billion debt ceiling, I do not find much to cheer about concerning it.” [Congressional Record, p. 13884; quoted from everttdirksen.name].
I don’t know how many people laughed about the “cat”; it is and was surely meant to be funny, as long as we acknowledge that Dirksen wasn’t joking about debt.
One would like to tell a similar story about dozens of Republicans—you know, those who ran for election and re-election for Congress in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Like a few of his colleagues, Mitch McConnell, with his back against the wall, promised the repeal of Obamacare and waltzed to victory in an election that, at least at one point earlier in the campaign, was deemed close. Other Republicans did the same and also picked up their bullhorns to proclaim the virtues of a balanced budget.
That’s the way of elections in the land of the free.
And then came the day after—not a hangover, mind you, but the post-election euphoria so many candidates must have felt in the sure knowledge that they’d pulled the wool over the eyes of the yokels yet again. Depending on the office, that’s two or six more years to trust in the short memories of voters or, better, their blissful ignorance of all things political.
We Republicans (maybe I should say you Republicans since I’m beginning to have real doubts about my own loyalties) have discovered, election cycle after election cycle, wellsprings of forgiveness that would be the envy of St. Francis of Assisi.
We voters haven’t simply gotten slapped, only to obediently turn the other cheek; we’ve gotten slapped on both cheeks simultaneously and clubbed on the head to boot.
True, we have bellyached now and again about this sorry treatment; that’s how Mitch got into trouble early in his 2014 campaign. But once back in Washington he and many another Republicans assured us that if they weren’t doing what they promised, that was because they didn’t control the executive. Well, now they do. It may be that the Grand Old Party has done a few good things in Trump’s first year, as many at TCR have recently observed.
But if the recent “budget” deal doesn’t make one scratch his head and wonder what happened to the party of “fiscal restraint,” nothing else will. Budget caps? Spending cuts? Never heard of ’em.
The national debt is in excess of $20 trillion. And that’s not all. On February 9th, Brian Riedl at National Review Online reported:
“Cutting taxes by $200 billion per year was easy. But without spending restraint, no tax cuts can be sustained. Even before tax reform, the Congressional Budget Office projected that annual budget deficits would surpass $1 trillion within five years and reach $2 trillion a decade after that (double those levels if interest rates rise). Over the next 30 years, the CBO projects the national debt will grow from $20 trillion to $92 trillion, reaching 150 percent of GDP.”
That’s annual deficits, folks, and debt Everett Dirksen might have described as a trillion here, a trillion there. No wonder that two days later at the same site Kevin Williamson entitled his take on Congressional mendacity “The Crash.”
Too willing to cut deals with both Democrats and their own feckless “moderates” who invariably pad spending bills with expenditures on pet projects and with pork, Republicans have failed their constituents and the nation as a whole. To be fair, the House offered a much better bill to the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” but by the time deliberations ended the country was, to put it bluntly, screwed again.
We’d expect as much from Democrats, with one qualification: they tell their voters that they’re going to spend as if money grew on trees. They blithely watch the cat dig its way to Hell; it’s part of their philosophy, which is to say that to them Hell is Heaven. Republicans are supposed to be different. But when Kevin Williamson’s “crash” comes, as indeed it must, all the finger-pointing at spendthrift Democrats in Washington won’t matter: there will be more than enough blame to go around.
With many other voices, I’ve argued for the prudential adoption of a constitutional amendment for term limits. Like a balanced budget amendment, such limits are becoming increasingly necessary if we are to rein in out-of-control spending and out-of-control politicians who think a permanent seat in Congress is their birthright.
We routinely admire men and women who go on diets to preserve their health, recognizing that they act not only for themselves but also for their loved ones. If we can’t demand as much of Congress, we will deserve what we get. And saying “I told you so” will be no consolation.
One foot up and two feet down: the cat is getting closer to Hell—and it’s no laughing matter.