WaPo repeats "inherited" deficit fallacy

Is it too much to ask that political reporters and their editors pass a basic civics test?  Joel Achenbach isn’t the first reporter to refer to the ballooning federal deficits as something Barack Obama “inherited,” but one might have thought that the editors of the Washington Post might have finally flipped through a basic primer on legislation and spending, as well as recall when the FY2009 budget actually got passed:

But it may not be boring forever. The United States owes investors nearly $8 trillion. That number could more than double in a decade. The projected growth of the federal debt is widely viewed as unsustainable. It’s unlikely that the nation will ever default, but neither is that any longer unthinkable.

President Obama is expected to address the burgeoning debt in a major economic speech Tuesday in Washington. He inherited a huge deficit, and there’s nothing but red ink as far as the eye can see. The administration has estimated that there will be $1 trillion-plus shortfalls through 2011, followed by $700-billion-plus shortfalls through 2019.

Whopper budget deficits for so many years will mean that the cumulative debt will creep up as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product. How much debt the country can handle is debatable. The problem is that, if investors think the United States isn’t fiscally responsible, they could start demanding much higher interest rates when they bid on Treasury securities. The feedback loop could get ugly. The nation could have to borrow hundreds of billions just to pay interest on what it owes. This has been touted as a classic path to irreversible national decline.

“Right now, this year, we have 1.6 trillion in debt coming due. That’s roughly twice individual income tax revenue. Our only plausible strategy for paying that back is to borrow more money,” says Leonard Burman, an economist at Syracuse University.

Well, that’s not exactly true, Dr. Burman.  We could start cutting the size and cost of the federal government instead of expanding it.  We could then use the money we save to start paying off some of our debt, as well as use the increased revenues from better economic performance that would result.

But back to the civics lesson.  Budgets do not come from the White House.  They come from Congress, and the party that controlled Congress since January 2007 is the Democratic Party.  They controlled the budget process for FY2008 and FY2009, as well as FY2010 and FY2011.  In that first year, they had to contend with George Bush, which caused them to compromise on spending, when Bush somewhat belatedly got tough on spending increases.  For FY2009, though, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid bypassed George Bush entirely, passing continuing resolutions to keep government running until Barack Obama could take office.  At that time, they passed a massive omnibus spending bill to complete the FY2009 budgets.

And where was Barack Obama during this time?  He was a member of that very Congress that passed all of these massive spending bills, and he signed the omnibus bill as President to complete FY2009.

Let’s remind people of what the deficits looked like during that period:

If the Democrats inherited any deficit, it was the FY2007 deficit, the last of the Republican budgets.  That deficit was the lowest in five years, and the fourth straight decline in deficit spending.  After that, Democrats in Congress took control of spending, and that includes Barack Obama, who voted for the budgets.  If Obama “inherited” anything, he inherited it from himself.