Nussle Has Unique Opportunity, if He Would Just Take It

Posted April 30, 2008 at 4:34pm

I was disappointed to see Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle’s Guest Observer condemning Congress for its budgetary failures (“Congress Owes a Better Budget on Tax Day,” April 15). Since Nussle was recently chairman of the House Budget Committee, he knows firsthand the frustrations of both Congress and the administration on budgetary matters. Yet he has just swapped talking points.

We should stop playing games on budgets; the consequences for our nation are too serious.

Neither party is blameless, which is why I have voted for both Democratic and Republican budgets the past two years. But Nussle cannot ignore the fact that the Bush administration has raised the national debt by $3 trillion; borrowed more money from foreigners than every previous administration combined; grown government more than any administration since the Great Society; vetoed one solitary bill for busting the budget; and tacitly approved the explosion in earmarks.

Seventy percent of all the national debt in U.S. history has been accumulated on the watches of just Ronald Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. And Republicans still claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility although they have soiled the garment. The GOP is even pretending that it has had little to do with earmarks.

Sometimes they can be gallingly candid. Take Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, who in a letter to The Washington Post argued that we could pay for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) proposed tax cuts by cutting government waste. After all, he helpfully pointed out, federal spending rose 42 percent between 2001 and 2006. He somehow forgot to mention Republicans controlled the White House and Congress for most of that period.

We Democrats have our own failings, but we have compiled a good record since the beginning of the Clinton administration on fiscal restraint. Domestic spending declined faster under Bill Clinton than under any modern president, and Congress paid for its priorities, producing three years of budget surpluses.

Going forward, if we could tone the rhetoric down on both sides and acknowledge each party’s failings, we could make real progress. Let’s start by using real accounting for the federal government. Simple use of the only audited numbers for the federal government, the Treasury’s “Financial Report of the U.S. Government,” would do wonders to help citizens and policymakers understand our current fiscal plight. These numbers would prevent President Bush, the first president with an MBA degree, from continuing to play make-believe.

The real numbers show that Bush deficits are hundreds of billions of dollars larger than his administration will admit, and probably trillions larger. Those numbers show Uncle Sam does not list the health and retirement liabilities of federal employees on the balance sheet. Such an omission would mean jail time in the private sector, or in any state or local government.

Nussle has a unique opportunity to steer America back in the right direction if he would just take it. In the final days of a dismal administration, there is little to lose politically from telling the truth. There is much to gain for Nussle’s future and for the future strength of America by leveling with American people.

The next administration, whether Democratic or Republican, is certain to audit the books of its predecessor. Nussle will be embarrassed when people learn that the Bush administration never bothered to pay for the war that it championed, never fixed the alternative minimum tax for more than a year at a time, never offered a plan to restore doctor cuts under Medicare, and never admitted that it fathered the greatest unfunded expansion of entitlement spending in American history.

Budgeting under Bush has been so incompetent and focused on “winning” the next news cycle that it is almost as if its budgets are for someone else’s administration. OMB tries to create its own reality rather than planning for the country’s painfully real future. That’s a harsh but accurate judgment. Nussle probably knows that it’s true, but will likely only admit it after he retires, when it’s too late to do him, or his reputation, any good. He probably hasn’t planned for that either.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) is a member of the Budget Committee.