In the two weeks since the election, the deficit has taken center stage in Washington, propelled by a high-profile report on how to cut it from the chairmen of the president's deficit commission, and by a push to ban congressional earmarks from conservative activists. This is welcome news for Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a renowned budgetary Cassandra who is so alarmed by the deficit that the first thing visitors to his Capitol Hill office encounter is a billboard displaying the steadily mounting US debt. Yesterday, it stood at $13,050,588,009,652, and because Cooper believes that most people cannot fathom a number so large, it also breaks down the debt into the cost per person: $42,350.
Cooper supports nearly every effort to cut spending and rein in the deficit -- for years, he himself has voluntarily foregone earmarks. But he doesn't expect the numbers to shrink anytime soon. His disappointment with the reaction to the two deficit initiatives puts Tea Party triumphalism about curbing Washington's profligacy in perspective. Cooper thinks that real change is still a long way off.
The grounds for this grim assessment was the swift chorus of dismissal from almost every politician and interest group of the plan advanced last week by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the deficit commission, to cut $3.8 trillion in spending and sharply reduce the federal deficit. The proposal targets sacrosanct entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, as well as military spending, and includes tax increases alongside spending cuts. As Simpson put it, ''We have harpooned all of the whales in the ocean, and some of the minnows.''