Democrats Care About the Deficit, Republicans Don't (a Continuing Series).

Americans see the GOP as better able to reduce the deficit, but is that trust warranted? After getting push-back from readers for suggesting that neither party is "particularly credible" on the deficit, Megan McArdle tries to offer a conclusive answer to the question:

Looking at our small group of post-1980 presidents, we have two GOP presidents who increased the deficit, one GOP president who took major steps to close it, one Democratic president who took steps to close it. The "Dems good, GOP bad" has another problem, of course: Barack Obama, the Democratic president who has set spending records as revenue collapsed. [...]

So while, yes, we have one more "bad Republican" than "bad Democrat", that's out of a group of five -- not particularly compelling evidence.

She cites the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 as a seminal piece of deficit-reduction legislation and attributes it entirely to George H.W. Bush, which is a mistake. Democrats controlled the 101st Congress, with a 10-seat majority in the Senate and an 87-seat majority in the House, and in both chambers, Democrats provided the majority of votes for the budget: 35 of 54 "yea" votes in the Senate, and 217 of 227 "yea" votes in the House. It's perfectly accurate to say that the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 was a Democratic bill signed by a Republican president, not the other way around.

Indeed, Democrats passed the next major deficit-reduction package -- the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 -- without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Moreover, conservatives insisted that the budget would bankrupt America, mirroring their performance in 1990, when they turned on George H.W. Bush for his decision to sign the budget bill. That Republicans opposed both bills should be a sign of how ancillary the deficit was -- and is -- to their concerns.

As for Barack Obama? McArdle acknowledges the president's "special circumstances," but still nicks him for his high spending. Of course, she misses two things; first is the fact that the budget deficit for 2009 was set before he ever entered office. On Jan. 7, the Congressional Budget Office had already put the 2009 deficit at over $1 trillion, which was almost certain to carry over into the next year, given the depth of the economic downturn. Those special circumstances are a lot more compelling when you consider the extent to which they've governed the president's actions over the last two years.

Second, and most important, is the fact that the Affordable Care Act is also a deficit-reduction package. I know McArdle is skeptical about the bill's deficit-fighting potential, but the best numbers we have suggest that health-care reform will produce $143 billion in net savings over the 2010-2019 period, and in the next decade, produce savings of more than $1 trillion. On paper at least, the Affordable Care Act is the most significant act of deficit reduction since the Clinton budget, making it the second time in 20 years that Democrats have gone all in on a long-term package to reduce the deficit.

If we're looking at the parties in the last three decades, then it's unambiguously the case that Democrats care about reducing deficits and will work toward the goal. Republicans, on the other hand, care about cutting taxes for rich people, and insofar that they have any concern about the deficit, it's as a prop in that general direction.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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