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Mark Shields: The Unspoken But Unavoidable Truth

The only way to balance the budget is through a combination of spending cuts and across-the-board tax increases

Bruce Bartlett earned his tax-cutting cred working with the late Jack Kemp, who in 1978 as a Republican congressman in a Democratic House put a smiling face on U.S. conservatism and his Kemp-Roth tax-cut plan squarely on the national agenda. Ronald Reagan, in his winning 1980 presidential campaign, adopted the Kemp tax cuts, made them the centerpiece of his White House economic plan and, in his second term, named Bartlett to a post in his Treasury Department.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Today, after eight years of a tax-cutting Republican president under whom the federal government annually spent an average of 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product while collecting just 17 percent annually of the GDP in taxes, the nation is drowning in debt.

Bartlett now argues that tax increases are necessary and inevitable. But, Bartlett told David Futrelle of Money Magazine: “Conservatives view all tax increases as equally bad — they would rather default on the (national) debt than raise taxes. But there are better and worse ways of raising taxes.”

He’s right. It’s OK for a Republican to be pro-choice on abortion or even a supporter of equal rights for gays. But the contemporary Republican who wants to raise taxes — whether to feed the starving orphans and widows or build the new neighborhood school — risks a judgment of heresy and banishment to the forced, lonely exile reserved for “Liberal Republicans.”

The nation’s fiscal crisis is real. The United States’ projected budget deficit for the next fiscal year is $1.6 trillion. How does that compare with other countries? Well, consider that America’s annual deficit is larger than the entire budgets of all the nations in the world except Germany and Japan!

The unspoken but unavoidable truth is that the U.S. budget can only be brought into rough balance through a combination of cuts in federal entitlement spending — that’s right, Social Security and Medicare — and across-the-board tax increases. Liberals recoil at the prospect of entitlement cuts as apoplectically as conservatives do at the mention of tax hikes. But in the words of boxing great Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Across-the-board tax increases have been devoutly avoided for almost a generation in Washington. It was 1993 and the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency when, facing the nation’s up-to-then-largest budget deficits, Democrats in Congress — without the support of even a single House or Senate Republican — voted to add a 4.3-cents-per-gallon increase to the tax on gasoline and raise the income tax on the highest-earners. In fact, there are still serving today just 71 House members and 27 senators who ever dared to vote for a general increase in federal taxes.

In the past 41 years, the U.S. federal budget has been balanced only twice — both when Clinton was in the White House. But wasn’t it the House Republicans who forced the budget discipline on that Democratic administration? Not exactly. We saw what Republicans could do when they controlled both the House and the White House during the first six years of the George W. Bush administration. Working together, they made history by loading on an additional $1.5 trillion of debt — more red ink than this nation accumulated in fighting two world wars, the Great Depression, Korea and Vietnam.

And, sorry, tax cuts are not the silver bullet to solvency. That bubble was burst by reality and Edward Lazear, chairman of George W. Bush’s council of economic advisers, who stated in congressional testimony, “I clearly would not claim that tax cuts pay for themselves.”

Let’s be candid here. One reason the Obama administration now supports a deficit-reduction commission to recommend the unpopular mix of across-the-board tax increases and entitlement cuts is that this might let President Barack Obama off the hook from his unrealistic campaign promise not to raise taxes on anybody earning less than $250,000 a year. Does anybody else remember “Read my lips”?

Taxes are going up. It’s the unspoken but unavoidable truth.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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