Someone should silence naughty Norman Ornstein before he spoils the sport of Congress-bashing. He demonstrates that congressional irresponsibility has not been the primary cause of the many deficits that have produced our national debt.
In an essay for the American Enterprise Institute, he notes that the $80 million Revolutionary War debt was cut in half by 1811. The War of 1812 tripled the debt, but it was almost eliminated in the 1830s. It rose as a result of the Mexican War, but then declined until the Civil War produced a $2.6 billion national debt. That caused Congress to centralize spending, resulting in two powerful appropriations committees. In 31 years (1867-1897), there were 27 surpluses. In 13 years revenues exceeded expenditures by more than 25 percent.
The Spanish-American War, combined with the 1896 recession, initiated 20 years with 11 deficits, but in 1916 the national debt was approximately what it had been in 1896. After 127 years the republic's debt was $1.23 billion. But in 1919, modern war, the foremost shaper of the modern world, had increased the debt 20-fold, to $25.8 billion. Then Congress again tightened budget procedures, and the debt again shrank, to $16 billion by 1930.
Depression deficits were almost trivial compared to those of World War II -- $211 billion. The national debt as a percentage of GNP was 33 percent on the eve of the Depression, 43 percent in 1940, 128 percent in 1946.
In 1946 Congress cut the number of committees and took other measures to restrain spending. Thanks to that and economic growth, the national debt as a percentage of GNP shrank to 98 percent by 1949, 56 percent by 1961.
But in the next quarter-century there was just one small surplus ($3.2 billion in 1969). From 1960 to 1980 the debt grew from $293 billion to $993 billion. In Reagan's first term it nearly doubled, as did the clamor against Congress and four proposed constitutional amendments (to restrain Congress).
Although Congress has been, in Ornstein's word, an "accomplice" it has been less important as a deficit-maker than presidents, from Lyndon Johnson with a guns-and-butter policy through Reagan's gamble that the stimulative effect of his tax cuts would make them virtually self-financing, eliminating the need for politically hazardous cuts in spending on middle-class programs.
Ornstein acknowledges that Congress has contributed to the deficits by the decline of its institutional tough-mindedness and the rise of "subcommittee government," which has weakened central control of spending through appropriations committees. And Congress has mastered the art of bestowing blessings by tax breaks rather than appropriations.
But Congress has reduced politically profitable discretionary domestic spending by reducing the amount (as a percentage of the budget) and the discretion (adopting formula programs). Congress indexed entitlement programs, thereby stopping the politically advantageous but fiscally irresponsible process of voting ad hoc increases every few years.
In 1982 Congress, dragging a reluctant president, attacked the deficit by raising taxes in an election year. In 1983 it attacked the deficit by initiating an energy-tax increase. In 1984 there again was something like congressional government, with another attempt to reduce the deficit by raising taxes in an election year, with an essentially passive president acquiescing.
Today there are reports that Reagan will go barnstorming to rally support for substantial cuts in middle-class programs. I, for one, will believe it when I see it from the man who, as Ornstein notes, has supported almost all the water projects President Carter tried to kill, has supported swollen farm subsidies and generous farm-loan guarantees, has supported subsidized electric power and grazing fees for his western friends, has pledged to "not stand for" cuts in the biggest sector of big government (Social Security), and wants some new deficit-enlarging programs, such as tuition tax credits. "These," says Ornstein dryly, "are not the habits of a President who would wield the line-item veto pen mercilessly."
The proposed item veto would cover only appropriations bills, and only a small portion of spending is controlled by such bills. In the $925 billion fiscal 1985 budget, there is just $81 billion in non-defense discretionary spending. And Ornstein thinks an item veto might increase spending because presidents would use it as a club. For example, he says, in Reagan's hands the item veto could be used to threaten dams and federal buildings desired by legislators opposed to MX. We would wind up buying the dams and buildings -- and the larger number of MXs.
Ornstein, you see, is doubly insufferable. He robs us of two comforts: the image of Congress as a convenient villain, and the hope that constitutional tinkering can be a panacea.