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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: “Morning Joe” Panel Confused About Debt, Deficits, History

Usually, “Morning Joe” is too boring to draw my attention. Then, last month, Mark Halperin said something interesting (and, in my opinion, spot on) about President Obama, and I decided to pay the show a little more mind.

On Friday, one of the shows guests was Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Chairman of the House Republican Conference. Now, Jeb is not my congressman, but he does represent an area I'm very familar with—namely, the northeastern suburbs of Dallas. (It's a very nice place to live.) Anyway, you can watch the full segment here:

I was very glad to hear Hensarling make a point that more Republicans really ought to be driving home to the spectators in this debt debate—to wit: that President Obama expects Republicans to agree to tax hikes in order to pay for spending that they opposed. How can any Democrat justify making Americans pay more in taxes to pay for spending that many taxpayers didn’t want and knew wouldn't work? (If any of you have an abnser to that, then PLEASE let me know.) Anyway, before, after and during the congressman's appearance on the show, I caught several curious comments by the panel that gave me pause. I'd like to address three of them now.

When Hensarling chided President Obama for not offerring a budget plan since his last proposal was rejected by the Senate in a humiliating 97-0 vote, Mika Brzezinski seemed to think she had something relevant to say and chimed in. If Republicans aren’t willing to “give on everything,” she asked, then “why should the president lay out a plan?”

I think that question is absurd enough on its face, so I didn’t bother to transcribe Hensarling’s response, but I also want to call attention to Mika’s apparent surprise when her co-host noted that, in his budget plan, Paul Ryan got rid of a lot of costly loopholes in the tax code. Evidently, she didn't know that Republcians were willing to close up those "tax loopholes" our president keeps talking about. How about that? Months before Obama started talking about "tax loopholes," Republicans had already laid out a tax reform plan that included eliminating a bunch of these deductions and credits that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share.

I'd advise Mika to make sure that she knows what she's talking about before she asks a serious person like Jeb Hensarling a question about such an important topic from now on, but since she seems to think that listening to everything Obama says is tantamount to being well-informed, I don't think my words would have any positive effect on her. Also, she doesn't read my blog.

On to something that Joe Scarborough said. Frankly, I was surprised to hear this from Joe, who served as a Republican member of the House from 1995 to 2001:

"George W. Bush and Republicans took a $155 billion surplus, turned it into a $1.4 trillion debt, took a $5.7 trillion national debt, turned that into an [$11.5-trillion-dollar debt]."

The Morning Joe Staff actually excerpted that statement, along with the question by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R - TX) that preceded it, and posted it on the show's blog. Here’s the problem: I’m not sure what Joe Scarborough is talking about (Also, when Hensarling stated that he thought Republicans were “rank amateurs compared to the president and the previous democratic Congress,” Joe said “That’s not true ... as a matter of math, that is not accurate.”)

So, what do the numbers say? Well, since he said “George W. Bush and Republicans,” we can start with the numbers for FY2001, when the federal budget ran a $128.2 billion (not $155 billion) surplus, even though I think Joe Scarborough did Republicans (many of them his former colleaguse) and his viewers a disservice by not acknowledging that Republicans first took us from a $164 billion deficit to that $128.2 billion surplus. Well, assuming Joe meant to say “a $1.4 trillion deficit” and not “$1.4 trillion debt” (a charitable assumption, to be sure, but I think the context warrants it), that’s not even close to true. In fact, there are no objectively true facts to support such a claim. True, during George W. Bush’s first term, the surplus turned into a deficit that peaked at $412.7 billion in FY2004. Then it came down. By the time Democrats took over Congress and control of the federal budget, the deficit was down to $160.7 billion. So, it’s fair to say that George W. Bush and Republicans took a $128.2 billion surplus and turned it into a $160.7 billion deficit. But, where on earth did Joe get the $1.4 trillion number from? Even while George W. Bush was still in charge, the deficit went up to $458.6 billion for FY2008, but by that time, Republicans & Democrats were @ least equally culpable for the mess. When Bush left office, the deficit for FY2009 was somewhere between $500 and 600 billion. (It’s difficult to calculate because the federal government only gives us month-to-month numbers; also, no one can say for sure what would have happened before the fiscal year ended had Bush still been president.) As for the debt, Joe’s numbers are pretty much accurate.

Then, towards the end of the segment, I heard John Heilemann say this:

"What Republicans are saying is that they will not accept any net increase in revenues, and the truth is, as we know, over the long haul, the only way to address ... the deficit and the debt is to have a net increase in revenues ... ."

Before I dissect his remarks, I just want to express my dismay that Heilemann had to shout over the other talkers on the panel to get his thoughts out. I know what it's like to be in the company of people who claim they want to hear your opinion and then don't let you get a word in edgewise, but anyway, like John Heilemann, I don't know what Congressional Republicans are thinking, but he's not claiming to know what the GOP wants; he's interpreting what he's seen and heard them say. I have no doubt that congressional Republicans want to see an increase in revenues. throughout this debate, Many of them have repeated the conservative mantra on how to increase revenues: we don't need more taxes; we need more taxpayers. And, while I can't speak for anybody in Congress, I can tell you that some republicans, including me, would like to see people who are gainfully employed but currently have no federal income tax liability start paying their fair share. Everything I've heard from congressional Republicans throughout this debate leads me to believe that most of them would like to see the government collect more in tax revenue; the question is how best to achieve that. Bottom line: the totality of the circumstances should lead a reasonable person to believe that GOP members of Congress would agree to changes in the Tax Code that would result in more money being collected by the federal government.

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