GOP blew up budget themselves

It would be easier to take Republicans seriously on government spending now if they'd ever complained about spending during the tenure of President George W. Bush — especially during the six years when they controlled government and could have cut spending dramatically. They could have fought the Pentagon on expensive and unnecessary weapons, eliminated farm subsidies to wealthy growers and pared back Medicare.

Instead, they did just the opposite. They slashed taxes and substantially increased government spending, burning through the estimated $800 billion annual surplus the federal government had accumulated under Bill Clinton. The Republican-dominated Congress even passed a huge entitlement, the fiscally foolish prescription drug plan for the elderly.

Now, though, with Democrats in control, Republicans are fiscal conservatives again — or so they say. All the fuss about mounting deficits prompted President Barack Obama to tell Congress last week that he'd reintroduce the "pay as you go'" law, which expired in 2002. It would require new spending programs be paid for with budget cuts or revenue increases. And it's not a bad idea.

But, believe it or not, Obama's recent spending has contributed only a couple of shovels-full toward digging this deep fiscal hole. The recession, which slashed tax receipts, did much more. And policies implemented by the previous administration were like a giant backhoe from the movie "Transformers" — digging, digging, digging.

President Bush chose to overthrow Saddam Hussein and hide the costs off-budget, becoming the first president to go to war without a tax increase to pay for it. By the time all U.S. troops have left Iraq, that war is likely to have cost two trillion dollars. And Bush's tax cuts would have left us in a fiscal slough even without the recession. With an aging population and more spending on entitlements, there's a growing gap between revenue coming in and revenue going out.

For all the Republicans' criticism of the stimulus package, Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress were right to pour money into the fight against the Great Recession. Most economists agree that the federal government shouldn't worry about deficits when the economy is edging toward the apocalypse. The $787 billion stimulus package is a key reason Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke now sees "green shoots" suggesting an economic upswing by next year.

Obama isn't off the hook, of course. If he runs for re-election in 2012 and the country is still swimming in red ink, he'll have a huge problem. So there's every political reason to believe he'll have come up with a plan to reduce deficits before then.

But with Republicans trying to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, they ought to have something important to contribute to the debate. They don't. The plan introduced by House Republicans, which they claim would save $75 billion a year, has specific spending cuts amounting to only about $5 billion. During the March budget debate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed "earmarks," but Republicans grabbed a substantial portion of them for their districts.

They spent no time fighting against huge money-wasters such as agricultural subsidies. Instead, Republicans such as Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss helped protect subsidies for agribusinesses. Worse, the GOP's signature economic prescription is cutting taxes. That's voodoo economics, just as it was when George H.W. Bush said so in 1980.

If that's the best the GOP can do on fiscal conservatism, they won't regain credibility any time soon.

Cynthia Tucker, an Opinion columnist, writes Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.