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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pay-As-You-Go Politics


Much fuss was made in the media last week about the supposed commitment in the new Congress to a "pay-as-you-go" fiscal policy. The vast majority of House members pledged to expend only as much money as they have and to make deficit spending difficult.

This merely brought them in line with 19th-c. Milwaukee editor and politician Rufus King (1814-1876), who urged the same restraint when Wisconsin was becoming a state more than 150 years ago:

"Abuse of taxation cannot extend further than the ability of the people in any one year to pay," he wrote in 1846, "while the abuse of the borrowing power may be felt for ages to come."

He was extremely wary of enabling government to borrow against future income to run current programs: "One appalling fact connected with national or state debts -- never yet has one been fully paid off!"

King helped defeat the first constitution at the polls in 1847, and was himself elected as a delegate to the 1848 convention that wrote a new one. He also held several Milwaukee local government offices, and as a Civil War general helped form the Iron Brigade. He later served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, where he caught one of the conspirators in Lincoln's assassination, who had fled the country.

King's fiscal conservatism became unpopular during the 20th century, when deficit spending became a way of life for politicians at the state and federal levels. It usually culminated in a train wreck: when the economy slowed down, fewer wages were earned and therefore fewer taxes collected, and government was unable to pay its accumulated bills.

Everyone agrees that last week's House measure was a step in the right direction, and the Senate is likely to follow suit. But many have reservations about the effort's sincerity or real impact. As Wausau Rep. Dave Obey put it, "You can have all the rules in the world, but if the president decides he's going to spend $100 billion on the war and not pay for it, it doesn't matter what your rules are. You've blown away any fiscal responsibility." [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jan. 5, 2007].


:: Posted in Curiosities on January 7, 2007

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