On the list of political issues that remain highly important to many voters and those within the government, spending the deficit are near the top. There currently exist websites that will show a person precisely where the national debt sits, and some have used this figure to pressure voters into choosing candidates who have shown a commitment to fiscal responsibility. In an effort to reduce deficits, there are have been many actions taken by congress, and depending on who has been in the White House, there has at times been a fight between congress and the president on which way to move forward. This has been especially true in times of economic hardship, as the two controlling parties have a distinctly different idea on what constitutes the right way to deal with an economic downturn. There has been since the 1980s a real and abiding sense that deficits are bad and that they should be reduced in some way. Despite this seeming consensus, there has not been a consensus on how to get this done, which has led to wildly varying plans and differing degrees of success.
In 1985, knowing that things were getting out of control, congress began to pass legislation in hopes of forcing the government to act more responsibly. That first act gave the government five years bring the deficit down from $200 billion to zero. If the budget did not get brought down by that amount, there would be automatic cuts across the board to a host of federal spending programs. These cuts were dramatic and would have been painful. The idea, then, was that by putting this impetus on the table, it would force more responsibility because no one would want to have to answer for massive cuts to spending programs that people actually like and value. In some ways, this move can be seen like a person buying an alarm clock that shreds a $20 after the person fails to wake up. It was a way to motivate the government by using negative reinforcement if the behavior did not happen. While this did help to bring down the deficit, it was less effective than one might think. It was less effective because the law required only that projected budgets meet this threshold. Actual budgets did not have to, and there were times when projected budgets and actual budgets had a significant split between them.
While it might seem that simple budget cuts could fix the problem, the reality is much more complex than this. Deficits are often the result of economic trends, including recessions, that might come because of factors outside of the control of government actors. This is what took place during the later part of George H.W. Bush’s administration, as deficits rose with the problematic economy. Likewise, how congress sets the budget can have an impact on the economy, so the situation gets more difficult. Bill Clinton’s actions during the early part of his presidency show how the situation can play out in reality. There are two ways to cut deficits from a budgetary and policy perspective, and the parties tend to disagree on how to get this done. One way is to raise taxes in hopes of increasing tax revenue so that the budget grows larger on the receipts side. The other option, which is favored much more by Republicans, is to cut spending so the budget shrinks on the expenditure side. Of course, these things are sometimes related, as spending cuts can influence the economy and sometimes shrink tax receipts.
More recently, the tactics used by congress have been more reflective of the current era of obstructionist politics. For instance, congress used the debt ceiling to create a fiscal cliff as a negotiating tactic. The country was coming up on the debt ceiling that had been agreed upon previously by congress, and this led to negotiations between the president and the Republican-led congress on what to do. The debt ceiling needed to be raised, of course, but congress was refusing to do this without concessions from the president on a number of spending issues. In fact, it got so bad at one point that Republicans in congress threatened to shut down the government, and in fact, some government services like the National Parks Service went into furlough during this time. This was much more in the vein of hostage politics rather than the timid discussions and negotiations of the past, as Republicans staked more of their political capital on the idea of fiscal responsibility. Of course, few have been willing to discuss how much of the budget is because of increases in military spending with the rise of American imperialism in the age of the War on Terror. While some issues—like spending and taxation—have a break on party lines, both Democrats and Republicans actually in the government have been willing to spend wildly on the military during that time.
The topic of the deficit has been a major one in American politics for more than three decades. Part of it is legitimate concern. In other cases, politicians have used the fear of rising debt to create a firestorm of controversy. Congress has routinely tried to do something about the deficit, but in general, the deficit has been a function of how well the economy has done and how much the country has been able to rake in on the taxation end because of that economic success.