From the Editor: Still Paying

Posted July 28, 2011 at 4:23pm

This year’s fourth CQ Roll Call Outlook went to press with no resolution in sight for the twinned debt limit and deficit reduction showdowns that have transfixed Washington and paralyzed the legislative agenda since the spring. By the time you read this, a crisis of fundamental government competence with profound economic consequences will have been averted — or else be only hours away.

So there’s a reason why this magazine’s seemingly incongruous topic makes sense to address right now. The Sept. 11 attack (which was foretold, albeit in vague terms, in an intelligence briefing presented to George W. Bush precisely 10 years ago this week) remains the most consequential single event so far this century, not only in the lives of most Americans but also in the way the federal government interacts with the business community. And it will still hold that distinction no matter whether the Treasury is permitted to borrow more money in the next few days.

It’s even fair to say that inflicting this country with chronic fiscal trouble was the high-water mark of Osama bin Laden’s jihad. A new era of surpluses looked so readily sustainable on Labor Day weekend 2001 that, even after the deepest tax cut in a generation, Bush could promise with confidence to keep the books in balance absent a “severe emergency,” a war or a recession. A week later, the country was facing all three, and the federal balance sheet has never been the same.

That was in part because Washington felt compelled to begin new and often expensive co-dependent relationships with six big industries. The airlines, insurance firms and power companies all wanted federal help to survive the war on terrorism. Defense contractors and pharmaceutical companies clamored to be at the heart of the new homeland security industrial complex. And the phone companies learned to love being conscripted into casting the biggest spying net ever imagined.

The stories here are by three reporters who have been on our staff since the attacks (for Keith Perine, it was his first day) and three who joined after. Brian Friel was flying from Washington to Los Angeles for a magazine assignment; the grounding of every plane put him on an airstrip in Garden City, Kansas — where the first choice for getting off a jet was the local fire department’s ladder truck. That small anecdote is one more reminder of how Sept. 11 affected every corner of the country a decade ago. It still does today.