House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn blamed President George W. Bush on Tuesday for the mountain of federal debt the S.C. lawmaker said accumulated through two unfunded wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Clyburn, of Columbia, and other members of the deficit-reduction "super committee" received a sobering assessment of the daunting task ahead as they seek to close the spending gap by $1.5 trillion by Thanksgiving.
“The nation cannot continue to sustain the spending programs and policies of the past with the tax revenues it has been accustomed to paying,” Douglas Elmendorf, head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told the panel.
“Citizens will either have to pay more for their government, accept less in government services and benefits, or both,” he said.
Clyburn began his questioning of Elmendorf with a pointed history lesson that started with President Clinton’s last year in office.
“In 2000, we had a $236 billion surplus and had begun paying down our national debt,” Clyburn said. “The economy was booming for all Americans. Unemployment was at 4 percent and the poverty rate dipped to its lowest level since 1979.”
Clyburn then pivoted to Bush’s tenure without mentioning him by name.
“Instead of building on the policies that served us so well, we embarked upon two wars, one of which was dubious at best,” Clyburn said.
“Using credit cards, we instituted two tax cuts totaling $554 billion, which were tilted in favor of millionaires and billionaires,” he said. “We created a new prescription-drug benefit program which CBO estimates would cost $967 billion over the next 10 years allowed mortgage lenders to gamble away the economic prosperity of millions of American families.”
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, rejected Clyburn’s description of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, saying “70 percent of that went to those making less than 250,000 bucks a year.”
Sen. Jim DeMint, then a U.S. representative, was one of only 25 Republican lawmakers who voted against the Medicare prescription-drug bill when the House passed it 220-215 in November 2003. Clyburn and all but 16 Democrats also voted against it.
Clyburn didn’t mention that more than one-quarter of the government’s current $14.63 trillion in debt – more than $4 trillion – has accumulated since President Obama took office in January 2009.
On Tuesday, with Elmendorf as its guide, the deficit-reduction committee of six Democrats and six Republicans from the House and the Senate was given a bleak tour of the nation’s economic landscape.
Elmendorf warned that if current policies don’t change, the nation’s aging population and escalating health care costs will drive federal spending well past the revenues that the government collects. The deficit this year is projected to reach $1.3 trillion.
Elmendorf’s assessment was accompanied by a dismal CBO forecast that the weak economy will keep the unemployment rate around 9 percent through 2012.
To make matters worse, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the nation’s poverty rate jumped to 15.1 percent, the highest level since 1993. The agency said 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty last year, an increase of 2.6 million from 2009.
“The recent recession was unusual compared with previous ones in terms of its causes, depth and duration,” Elmendorf told lawmakers. “As a result, the recovery has had unusual features that have been hard to predict, and the path of the economy in coming years is also likely to be surprising in various ways.”
With all the bad news as a backdrop, the committee spent its second meeting pondering how the country got into this mess, and how it will escape.
Several members staked out familiar lines, with Republicans citing the rising costs of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“We have a spending-driven debt crisis,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and the panel’s co-chairman.
Like Clyburn, other Democrats blamed the debt largely on the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tax cuts initiated by Bush.
“Today we will hear about how we lost our way,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat. “To heal this country’s long-term fiscal situation, we need to ask ourselves whether it’s the senior citizen, the student or the Wall Street banker who received the benefits of this spending binge.”
Under the debt-ceiling law Congress enacted last month after weeks of paralysis, the panel has until Nov. 23 to come up with recommendations to reduce deficits over the coming decade by at least $1.2 trillion, and hopefully by $1.5 trillion.
Congress will then have a month to approve the recommendations. If it doesn’t, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will be triggered starting in 2013, divided equally between military and non-defense programs.
Social Security, Medicaid, military and civilian pensions and most low-income programs would not be affected by the automatic cuts. Medicare funding reductions would be limited to payments to providers, not beneficiaries.