Rudmans fiscal alarm endures
Warren Rudman died last week in Washington, D.C., at age 82. But the crucial cause behind a major congressional act bearing his name lives on.
Sen. Rudman, an independent-minded moderate from New Hampshire, teamed up with fellow Republican Phil Gramm of Texas and Democrat Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina to write the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Their aim was to legislatively mandate balanced federal budgets.
The bill was written in 1985, when the federal budget was $946 billion and the deficit a then-record $212 billion.
Unfortunately, not long after that potentially landmark legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, both parties started rampantly circumventing the bill’s deficit-reduction stipulations.
Thus, today the federal budget is $3.8 trillion — and we have recorded four consecutive deficits of at least $1 trillion.
So the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act was a failure, right?
Not entirely. It focused more public attention on Washington’s failure to pay its way — and on the potentially disastrous long-term consequences.
Former Sen. Hollings, little more than five weeks from his 91st birthday, is still waging that good fight. As he writes on today’s Commentary page, lawmakers who call themselves “conservatives” fail to live up to that title when they repeatedly approve soaring federal deficits.
Mr. Rudman, after leaving the Senate in 1993, also kept up the battle for fiscal responsibility. Along with former Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas, Mr. Rudman co-founded the Concord Coalition, a self-described “non-partisan, grassroots organization dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits, the long-term challenges facing America’s unsustainable entitlement programs, and how to build a sound foundation for economic growth.”
Then as now, though, politicians ducked the hard decisions required to both reduce federal spending and raise federal revenue. Their continuing wariness about taking on that long-overdue task stems from conflicting voter demands for both higher government benefits and low taxes.
Yes, we did achieve a balanced federal budget — and even a surplus (at least on paper) from 1998-2001. Democratic President Bill Clinton fairly claimed some credit for that accomplishment, citing the tax hikes he helped impose during his first term. The first Republican House in four decades, starting in 1995, fairly claimed some credit of its own for forcing through spending cuts.
Those balanced budgets also were the fortuitious product of enhanced federal tax revenues from a boom economy.
When Mr. Rudman left the Senate two decades ago, he expressed frustration at Washington’s ongoing lack of courage on the budgetary front: “People are willing to risk their lives for their country in times of war. They ought to be able to risk an election in a time of economic trouble.”
But Mr. Rudman wasn’t just a powerful voice of reason in the fiscal wilderness. Early in 2001, he sounded a prescient alarm about America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack and called for the creation of a Homeland Security department.
From the report he co-wrote with former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado: “A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century.”
Less than eight months later, the forces of radical Islamic terror launched the epochal 9/11 attacks on American soil.
However, it’s as a visionary budget hawk that Mr. Rudman will be best remembered. In 1995, he decried anew the persisting refusal of the powers that be to follow the frugal framework of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. (Keep in mind that in 1995, the federal budget was $1.52 trillion and the deficit a mere $164 billion.)
Yet Mr. Rudman rightly lamented: “Had we stuck to that plan, had the Congress not failed to follow it through — in fact, had presidents not failed to follow through — we would not be where we are today.”
If we stick to our current unsustainable course, we will suffer self-inflicted fiscal ruin.
But nobody can say Warren Rudman didn’t warn us.