During the course of the Bush administration, Republicans found their mojo for Big Government Republicanism. For example, in 2003, President George W. Bush announced that his administration would spend "up to $400 billion" over 10 years to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare. By 2008 that Medicare drug entitlement program was projected to cost $783 billion over the next 10 years.
And then there was the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), from which funds were used to bail out the banks and General Motors. As Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) noted at the time, "It is now clear that the creation of TARP was a rueful mistake which has failed to provide urgent market stability, yet has put our country perilously in debt for the foreseeable future." Overall, under Republican leadership, federal spending surged 47 percent between 2001 and 2008, with spending increasing 9.1 percent (or $249 billion) in 2008 alone, while the federal debt rose by $3.8 trillion during that same period.
But wait, there's more. Not to be outdone, President Barack Obama kicked off his term with an $823 billion "stimulus" from which we are still expecting jobs to be created. Under a Democrat-controlled White House, House and Senate, we witnessed the number of employed persons (you remember them) decline from 145.3 million (the month before Obama took office) to fewer than 140 million in 2010. And while the economy saw an increase in the unemployment rate, it also saw an increase in the rate of spending. Federal spending in 2009 grew 18 percent or $535 billion. In one year.
As the Congressional Budget Office predicted, since 2009 federal spending has averaged 24.4 percent of GDP — meaning, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, that one dollar of every four you produce from your labor is taxed and redistributed by the federal government. But in order to spend, the president has had to borrow money. Lots of it — $3.7 trillion, in fact, since 2009. On Inauguration Day, the nation's debt stood at $10.6 trillion. In a few short weeks, Congress will likely take steps to increase the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling so that the government can spend more.
And what about the Department of Defense? Well, let's put it this way: In fiscal year 2001 the government spent $366 billion on defense and is expected to spend $964 billion in 2011.
But in all of this, what has struck me as the most dishonest is the wailing and gnashing of teeth by establishment types on both sides of the aisle about spending, taxes and debt, all the while doing very little to address the nation's fiscal health or the growing number of unemployed. Remember: (1) Until January 2011, the Democrats controlled both the legislative and executive branches of government, and during that time, they failed to even pass a budget for fiscal year 2011; and (2) Republicans campaigned in 2010 on cutting $100 billion in federal spending from the 2011 budget; dropped that number to $61 billion when they took control of the House of Representatives; and finally settled with the president and the Democrats (who offered no cuts that weren't offset by higher spending) on $39 billion in additional cuts, thereby passing a 2011 budget and averting a government shutdown — some seven months into the fiscal year. Clearly this is no way to manage the nation's business.
It is the way of Washington to tear down that which it does not understand — or, more aptly, fears. Such is the case with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget proposal. There is no doubt that Ryan's proposals have caused a reality check for both the left and the right. In one of the most comprehensive overhauls of our nation's budget, Ryan recognizes that the brave new world of true fiscal discipline is not just about spending; it's also about taxes.
The recent wrangling over the 2011 budget painfully reminded us that traditional battle lines were still being drawn: The president wanted to tax "the rich" (those of you earning more than $250,000), and Republicans wanted to make the "Bush tax cuts" permanent (the tax cuts were due to expire in 2010, but the president cut a deal to extend them until 2012).
However, Ryan has pushed back on the old assumptions about taxes and spending policies by producing an intellectually honest and challenging budget proposal that deserves an intellectually honest debate. But when talk of Ryan's attempt to change the way Washington taxes and spends the people's money first surfaced more than a year ago, establishment Republicans were, let's just say, tepid in their response.
Indeed, as reported at the time, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner said, "Paul Ryan is [the] ranking member on our budget committee, who has done an awful lot of work in putting together his road map. But it's his." Meanwhile, other nameless GOP staffers grumbled publicly, "It [is] not useful to have Ryan offering himself as the point man for Republican budget ideas before the party has unified around its plan."
But establishment Democrats were worse. In fact, their response to Ryan's plan was typical. In the course of several press conferences, the words "vouchers," "privatize," "Bush" and "unfair" were used in full-throated fervor. Connecticut Rep. John Larson, Democratic Caucus chairman, called the Ryan road map an "excise tax on steroids" and noted that Ryan and the Republicans are "frozen in the ice of their own indifference." And we know what they had to say about Ryan's final budget proposal, recently passed by Congress.
There's one thing to be said about bipartisanship in Washington: Everyone wants it when officials sense something is about to change the way they do business. It's how they close ranks on a problem — not necessarily in order to solve it.
At present our nation is lurching deeper into debt, with higher deficits and uncontrolled spending. The warning signs about just how precarious our situation is are become more clear with each passing day. The recent decision by the Standard & Poor's rating agency to downgrade the United States' credit outlook to "negative" sent a shock wave through the markets, resulting in a 140-point drop in the Dow. The public's growing concern and increasing skepticism about the ability of the White House and congressional leaders to move the budget agenda forward are stark and sad reminders of just how little confidence we have in both branches of government.
Over two administrations, the political establishment in Washington has indicted itself in its handling of our nation's business. There has been no change, only more of the same, and it will take an audacious stroke like Ryan's proposal to break the bait and switch of budget politics.
It's clear that Paul Ryan has thrown down the budget (and political) gauntlet. It's a risky but necessary move by Republicans in order to address the most significant and dangerous fiscal mess the country has confronted in three generations. Is the Ryan budget plan flawless? Of course not (it does very little to tackle defense spending, for example), but what I like most about Ryan's effort is that it has moved the public debate from how much more to spend to how much more — and what — to cut.
Now, if only our leaders would join Ryan and the American people and do the same without the characteristic demagogic rhetoric, hysterical exaggerations and budget gimmicks. That would be change we could believe in. Seriously.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007.