What happened to all that deficit talk?


The “debt clock” was a big part of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, but it probably didn’t end up in any of his living rooms. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Not so long ago, the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our children’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and the news media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple weeks.

In his 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Mitt Romney famously traveled about the country with his “giant, green, glowing and growing debt clock,” our colleague Philip Rucker reported. Romney gestured at it and bragged about it. A Romney aide told the Wall Street Journal in May 2012 that the clock focused people on “the most pressing issue right now.”

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

How times change.

A count by our colleague Alice Crites illustrates how the issue gained media traction — especially after the stimulus packages that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed to mitigate Bush’s Great Recession — and how much it’s faded from the front pages. (We’re hearing that reporters who’ve had a great run covering this issue are quite glum these days.)

So, what happened? The simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, no longer a big problem.

Last week’s Congressional Budget Office estimate for the fiscal 2014 deficit is $492 billion, or 2.8 percent of gross domestic product, which is pretty much where it was in the early part of the Bush II administration — though it’s expected to rise sharply in coming years.

No one is really working the issue very hard on the stump, patting themselves on the back, talking about the wonderful Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t a big deal and passed only because neither party cared all that much anymore.)

While Obama has talked about the dramatic reduction in the deficit, “most Democrats never thought the deficit was the right issue on which to focus,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow and Clinton administration policy adviser Bill Galston. “They were very critical of the attention Obama gave it during 2011,” he told the Loop, so they’re not that interested in bragging about the progress.

Tea party Republicans, Galston noted, have “an enormous investment in the proposition that ‘spending’ remains out of control and fear that acknowledging the lower deficit would reduce the power of their narrative.”

And maybe the GOP base has plenty of other things to rally around: a most unpopular president, Benghazi or House Speaker John Boehner’s lawsuit against Obama for failing to enforce parts of Obamacare.

The real problem, according to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and top economic policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 GOP presidential campaign: “Congratulations are due to American workers, entrepreneurs and families for their work toward economic recovery that has reduced the deficit. Collectively, Washington has done essentially nothing, unless you count stopping making it worse.”

Well, we don’t miss the deficit. But we sure miss that clock.

Only hurting ourselves

The White House issued a number of new sanctions against Russian companies last week, including Kalashnikov Concern, maker of AK-47s. And the Russian government was concerned about the impact on U.S. gun owners.

The Russian Embassy here tweeted a story from the Russian news service Itar-Tass with the note “Sanctions against Kalashnikov corporation run counter to interests of US customers.”

The story it linked to was a brief interview with a spokesman from the gun manufacturer, who said Americans are loyal customers of the assault weapons. There are said to be 100 million of its rifles around the world.

“This means that the sanctions the U.S. administration has imposed on Kalashnikov contravene the interests of U.S. consumers,” the Kalashnikov spokesman said.

The Loop called the NRA to see whether it agreed, but there was no response.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about Russia’s assertion at a news briefing, and she said the U.S. government takes “into account, of course, any impact on U.S. businesses, U.S. consumers, as we make these decisions.”

She said she did not know what the specific impact would be on U.S. buyers of Kalashnikov rifles.

Helpfully, the Treasury Department put out an FAQ on that.

To concerned Kalashnikov fans, Treasury offers this promise: If you like your AK-47 you can keep your AK-47. You can even sell it privately at gun shows and shops. But you can’t buy a new one, and if you haven’t fully paid for your Kalashnikov (in other words, you still owe the Russians money), you should call the Office of Foreign Assets Control for guidance.

A timely confirmation

The Senate late Monday confirmed Los Angeles lawyer Michael Lawson, a major Democratic contributor and Obama mega-bundler, to be the U.S. representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO, headquartered in Montreal, is a U.N. organization that deals with air safety and security, issues much in the news of late.

Lawson, in addition to raising up to $500,000 in both 2008 and 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has served on the Los Angeles World Airports Board of Airport Commissioners and is its immediate past president.

Lawson was recently nominated for the job. (Okay, it was last September, but for the Senate these days, that means recent.) And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination — without opposition — on May 20. Lawson was confirmed Monday on a voice vote.

Still pending, however, is the nomination of Chris Hart to be chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which could really be in the thick of things in Ukraine after the Russian downing of the Malaysian passenger plane.

Hart has been a member of the NTSB since 2009 and has been its acting chief since April 25, when Deborah Hersman left. He was also on the board from 1990 to 1993.

Granted, President Obama didn’t nominate him to replace her until June 26, but we’re thinking it’s important for the Senate to move on the formal promotion quickly. The head of the NTSB, like the chairman of many other federal alphabet agencies, is like the lion tamer in the circus ring. If he doesn’t have the whip, they’re not going to perform very well.

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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