"We don't have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem." That's a Republican mantra often used to explain why the answer to Washington's deficit spending is not a tax increase, but more spending cuts.
You'll be hearing the "spending problem" mantra a lot -- from Democrats, too -- as Washington debates raising the debt ceiling from its current limit of $14.29 trillion.
I've used the phrase myself -- and believed it. But I cannot make that assertion today. For years now, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in the most ugly of collaborations -- and it's a reason why many voters of both stripes don't trust compromise or promises of bipartisanship. The one thing both parties could agree on was to spend more money without paying for it.
In the past couple of years, annual federal deficits exceeded $1 trillion, on top of the heap of debt that accumulated before the current recession. Soon the $14.29 trillion ceiling won't be able to keep a lid on what America owes.
The annual cost just to pay interest on that debt will exceed $1 trillion in 10 years, estimates the fiscal watchdog group the Concord Coalition. While Washington releases rosier numbers, the Concord Coalition uses a "plausible baseline" -- Bush tax cuts are extended, slated cuts to Medicare providers don't happen, and the Alternative Minimum Tax is adjusted for inflation -- which projects annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion for the next decade.
House Republicans want to reduce most discretionary spending to 2008 levels. That's a smart start. But it is only a start at addressing Washington's "spending problem."
As Concord Coalition Policy Director Joshua Gordon noted, "You can say we have a spending problem, but that's different than saying we don't have a revenue problem." And that problem is: "the levels of debt."
"Under no realistic scenario," Gordon continued, will the federal budget be balanced without a combination of spending cuts -- including cuts in Social Security and Medicare -- and tax increases.
I've heard the GOP talking point about how you don't go out to eat every night when you owe thousands in credit-card debt. Be it noted that each American's share of the federal debt is about $45,000. The flip side to that analogy is that when you owe banks a big chunk of change, you don't announce you only will make the minimum payment for the rest of your life.
Today, the recovery is too fragile to withstand tax increases. But the day will come when voters can and should be expected to pay the consequences of sending big spenders to Washington.
On talk radio, I have heard Republicans complain that they never voted for the big spenders, so they shouldn't have to pay higher taxes. Let me quote my pal Joseph Bottum, who, writing for USA Today on Republicans who don't want to raise the debt ceiling, observed, "You've heard that whine before; on the playground, or in a squabble after school. It's the cry of a child who thinks it's just not fair he has to clean up someone else's mess."
Like it or not, it is America's debt -- and the day will come when Americans have to face the consequences and pay for it.