Pietro Nivola: What the War of 1812 Can Teach Us About the Fiscal-Cliff Debate

Roundup: Historians' Take

Pietro Nivola is a senior fellow with the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of What We So Proudly Hailed: Essays on the Contemporary Meaning of the War of 1812.

...Glancing back, one cannot help but be struck by certain similarities between the role of party politics in the run-up to the crisis of 1812-14 and the present partisan strife over government tax policy, budgetary priorities, and the national debt.

In the arc of history, the contemporary discord about the proper balance of government spending, borrowing and taxation has an air of déjà vu. The 112th Congress put in jeopardy, at one point, the financial full faith and credit of the United States. The debacle was narrowly averted by a crude statutory contrivance, cobbled together at the eleventh hour. "Our country is not going to default for the first time in history," the Senate minority leader was able to declare. But America came dangerously close, and if it had happened, it actually would have been the second time -- the first having occurred in 1814, at the hands of the 13th Congress, which had been comparably conflicted about raising the requisite revenue to cover the nation's unsustainable bills.

And once again, the footing of national security is very much at stake in the current debate. The impending "fiscal cliff" -- the awkward deficit-reducing deal that was finally improvised in August 2011 -- threatens an automatic phased reduction of $1.2 trillion in overall spending, beginning in fiscal 2013, with roughly half of that stripped from defense. To be sure, today's Republican Party does not welcome that prospect, whereas yesterday's was inclined to cut military spending to the bone. Yet, both back then and more recently, a group of politicians calling themselves Republicans seem to have had this much in common: an apparent mismatch between their willingness to consider waging wars, and their unwillingness to pay the piper by levying new taxes.

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