Blogs > Iwan Morgan > A minority victory without precedent?

Aug 2, 2011 1:53 pm

A minority victory without precedent?

Drawing on nearly forty years of teaching and researching US history and politics, I cannot think of a greater victory won by a minority party than the Republican success in forcing a solution to the debt limitation controversy that met GOP preferences.

I would be grateful if anyone could provide me with a better example.

The Democrats know all too well that they have been bested.  It's possible to pick out any number of admissions to this effect after the House vote, but two will suffice.  Raul Grijalva (Arizona) declared: "We have given much and received nothing in return.  The lesson today is that Republicans can hold their breath long enough to get what they want." Congressional Black Caucus chair Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri , a Methodist pastor, graphically described the House bill as a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich."

Republican success is mainly built on the party's determination to stand by its clearly held beliefs, while the Democrats were always looking for a deal (though not necessarily this one).  The impending crisis of default also played to the advantage of the intransigent party in the negotiations.  Yet it should be recognized that the GOP's success is further built on its ability to define the debt/deficit problem as a spending problem.  This was spelled out clearly in what was effectively John Boehner's victory address after the vote - whatever the issues over his leadership in the crisis, it should be recognized that he ended up on the winning side!

Defining the deficit as a spending issue traces its Republican pedigree from the New Deal through the Eisenhower era to the Reagan presidency and down to the present.  Amazingly today's Democrats have let the GOP get away with this, in contrast to their 1980s and 1990s forbears.

A simple history lesson should undermine the contention that the deficit only arises from too much spending rather than insufficient revenue.  The US balanced the budget four times in the Clinton second term with tax levels that were higher than when the budget deficit ballooned in the Bush era.  In Fiscal Year 2000 the federal government operated a surplus of $236 billion dollars with revenues that equated to 20.9 percent GDP, the highest level since 1944. 

Another way of looking at this is to consider spending and revenue levels over the long term.  In the half century prior to the economic collapse of 2008, US expenditure averaged just over 20 percent of GDP, a relatively modest level, while tax revenues averaged an even more modest 18.5 percent of GDP.  Not insignificantly the US has only balanced its budget 5 times in this period, and the pattern on each occasion was consistent. Spending ranged between 18.4 and 19.4 percent GDP and receipts were never less than 19.7 percent GDP.  In other words fiscal balance resulted from spending control and revenue enhancement.

A main reason, admittedly not the only one, that the Clinton-era surpluses vanished in the twenty-first century was  the loss of revenue from the Republican tax cuts of 2001, 2003, and 2005.  It is remarkable how the GOP has been able to sustain these into the Obama era with an anti-tax campaign that blatantly ignores the distributive benefits of the Bush-era tax cuts in favor of the rich.  According to Joseph Stiglitz, the income of the wealthiest 1 percent  has risen by 18 percent in the last ten years with the assistance of the skewed tax cuts of 2001, 2003 and 2005; in contrast that of male blue collar workers has fallen by 12 percent over this period. Further benefiting economic elites is the declining significance of corporation income taxes over the last half-century, revenues from which only netted  2.7 percent GDP in Fiscal Year 2006 compared to 4.9 percent GDP in 1956.

Any insistence that the deficit/debt result solely from excess spending is a spurious argument that needs to be countered at every opportunity if the US is to put its fiscal house in order without inflicting most of the pain on those in society least able to bear it. 

Perhaps the Republicans would do well to recall the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953: "Every real American is proud to carry his share of any tax burden... I simply do not believe for one second that anyone privileged to live in this country wants someone else to pay his fair and just share of the cost of his Government." Ike was speaking in opposition to a Democratic proposal to raise the income base at which eligibility to pay income taxes began, which would have exempted millions of low-income tax payers from their obligations.  They are even more applicable to today's tax system that exempts the wealthy from carrying their fair share of the deficit reduction burden. 

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