Understatement of the Week: Pete Domenici

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International

The Washington Post this week churned up some water-logged, not to say river-bottom, quotes from some heady economic times -- circa 2001.

The U.S. government was in that year sitting on an annual surplus that was leftover from the Bill Clinton presidency. The national debt was a bit more than $3 trillion, which seems quaint by today's standards. The debate in the White House in those days was about bailing out Social Security or paying down the national debt. Then, of course, George W. Bush came along.


Bush argued "the surplus is the people's money," which was his rationale for cutting taxes.

Was this an honest fiscal policy or, as Bush's own Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said, "to make sure that economic conditions were great going into the president's re-election."

Doing the math from there, the slower economy and the Bush-era tax cuts have subtracted $6.3 trillion from government revenues, about half the $12.7 trillion swing from black ink to red in the ensuing years.

Adding up the spending, on Bush's tab are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- $1.3 trillion -- tweaks in Medicare worth $272 billion and a bank bailout program that may break even. On President Barack Obama's tab is a $719 billion economic stimulus bill, passed in 2009, that amounts to about 6 percent of the swing from surplus to deficit, the Post said.


Add up the presidential receipts and Bush spent more than $7 trillion, while Obama has spent $1.7 trillion so far, the Post said.

For understatements, start with Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. "The problem was a whole other part of the political spectrum wanted to use the surplus for tax cuts. They said they wanted to give the people back their money."

Wait for it … "Of course, it was also the people's debt," he said.

Then listen to former Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee when the tax cuts were passed.

"Nobody would have thought that all these things would have happened after you cut taxes … that you'd have two wars and not pay for them. That you'd have another recession."

Some would argue "nobody" isn't a fair assessment at all. There was certainly opposition to the tax cuts at the time and for those very reasons -- because you cannot predict what is around the corner.

Nevertheless, "You would pause before you did it, if you knew," Domenici said.

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