Budget Compromise Slim On Details Congress averted a government shutdown with an 11th-hour deal on Friday, but details about what was included in the cuts are still largely unknown to the public, and even some lawmakers. NPR's Ron Elving explains the compromise, and the budget battles yet to come.

Budget Compromise Slim On Details

Budget Compromise Slim On Details

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Congress averted a government shutdown with an 11th-hour deal on Friday, but details about what was included in the cuts are still largely unknown to the public, and even some lawmakers. NPR's Ron Elving explains the compromise, and the budget battles yet to come.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last Friday night, at almost the last minute, the president, the speaker of the House, and the majority leader of the Senate reached a budget agreement that cuts 38 and a half billion dollars more from this year's federal budget. But right now nobody knows exactly what's being cut or by how much.

And it turns out the agreement reached on Friday only covered a few days. It's entirely possible we could face another political crisis before the end of the week. And even if that is settled, those countdown clocks could start ticking again, well, within the next couple of months.

If you're confused, you're in good company. So what's your question about what happened last week, and what happens next? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Karen Greenberg joins us on the Opinion Page to argue that an offshore military trial for the 9/11 suspects is better than no trial at all.

But first, the budget deal and how it might come unraveled. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us here in Studio 3A. Ron, always nice to have you with us.

RON ELVING: And always nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And so what's happening right now? Is the bill being written?

ELVING: In a very real sense it is. The House Appropriations Committee staff and others involved in appropriations are working their way through the directives that they have received from Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, agreed to by the president last Friday night, and trying to apportion that $38.5 billion, program by program.

Now, there were some big sort of numbers put out by the White House over the weekend. They said that the State Department and foreign operations was going be looking at something like an $8 billion hit. That sounds pretty high. We'll see if that was really the number that they meant.

They also said that Labor, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services would share about $13 billion in cuts, and there would be about $3 billion of cuts in transportation programs.

But that's about it. That's about all the details we have.

CONAN: That's pretty vague.

ELVING: You bet. That's big-time vague. So we really don't know yet exactly where these cuts are coming, except we do know they're not coming in the Department of Defense.

We do know there's going to be a $1 billion haircut that is spread across all non-defense discretionary spending. That's about 12 percent of the budget. And that's really where the focus of all the cutting that we've heard in recent weeks and months has been.

They're not cutting in defense, except a little bit at the margin, and they are not doing anything on the revenue side to reduce the deficit. This is all about cutting government programs. And they are not yet -although we'll get to this, I know, in our discussion - this is looming on the horizon - but they are not yet, in all of this 2011 talk, everything about the government shutdown last Friday, everything we're doing this week - we are not yet talking about the Big Kahuna, which is to say the entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

CONAN: Indeed, and there is an agreement - hoorah, hoorah, the government's not shutting down. But it turns out the speaker of the House, it's possible, may not have the votes for this.

ELVING: He did have the votes, we saw Friday night, to get a bridge CR -that is, a bridge continuing resolution, which keeps the government funded through Thursday. So it was essentially just an agreement to agree on this $38.5 billion in additional cuts...

CONAN: Just that number, basically.

ELVING: A little bit more but not much more. There were some guidances, given, of course, to the staff. It's not as though the staff is making all these decisions. They are trying to carry out the directives that they have. But all we know that the three principals agreed on, all we know for sure is they agreed on this $38.5 billion number. Now, there must have been much more.

They also agreed that they would not include in this deal a number of policy issues that had been on the minds of many of the Republicans.

CONAN: Yet they're writing this, these details down, and as we know, the devil's in the details - a significant number of Republicans did not vote for that continuing resolution, and it turns out, well, it's entirely possible as this target comes up and various people have three days to shoot at it, their support may dwindle.

ELVING: That's right, plus there are going to be a number of people who hear from back home that they don't think that a $38.5 billion cut is anything of significance and that they really want to see hundreds of billions of dollars cut in the current-year budget, that they're not satisfied with the promise of trillions to be saved in the future. They would like to see more cut right now.

And so we've already heard from a number of Republicans who have said that they are not inclined to or they plan not to vote for this $38.5 billion number, which by the way, once we get past Thursday, is supposed to carry us, we're supposed to then have a bill that will keep the federal government running through September. That's all the further it goes.

CONAN: We have some quotes from various people. This is from Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, who may be running for president of the United States: The deal that was reached tonight is a disappointment for me and millions of Americans who expected $100 billion in cuts, who wanted to make their tax dollars stop flowing to the nation's largest abortion provider, and who wanted to defund Obamacare.

And then this from Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky, Republican, who said: As I've said before, there is not much of a difference between a 1.5 trillion deficit and a $1.6 trillion deficit. Both will lead us to a debt crisis we may not recover from. He opposed the short-term resolution.

If that kind of statement starts picking up some traction, we could see more defections.

ELVING: I think that's entirely possible. John Boehner was able to guarantee last Friday night enough votes to get the bridge done for another six, seven days. He did not have yet the votes to go all the way through September.

CONAN: So at that point, if leader - the speaker of the House cannot get enough Republican votes to pass this, is he then going to have to ask the Democrats for some votes?

ELVING: Well, they're the only other party there. There's no other party in the House to go to for votes. I'm sure if there were a third party, that would be where he would go. But he's going to have to ask the Democrats to help.

I don't know that that will happen.

CONAN: But wouldn't they vote for this?

ELVING: There will be some Democrats who will, of course, say absolutely not. They are not going to be any party to further cuts to programs that they believe in when there is no balancing, in their view, on the defense spending side or, for that matter, on the entire realm of revenues, where we could, for example, re-examine some of those tax cuts for upper-income groups that were just extended for two more years in December. That would be one place to go, and it's one place where I think the president wants to go.

So some Democrats are going to dig their heels in and say: Well, look, this may not be what Michele Bachmann and Rand Paul want, but it's not what I want either. So I'm not going to vote for it.

CONAN: And you're the majority in the House. It's your bill, you pass it.

ELVING: That is the Republicans, yes. The Republicans - and of course when the Democrats were the majority, and the last time we had to raise the debt ceiling, the Democrats, of course, had to pony up and say: All right, we'll have to pass this. We'll have to provide votes.

And I should be careful about saying the last time because there were many times the Democrats had to do it. I think the very last time we had to raise the debt ceiling, I think the Republicans were actually in the majority...

CONAN: We'll get to the debt ceiling in just a minute. We're still on the deal that was reached last week on this year's budget. Again, this is just this year's budget.

We've got a caller on the line. Rich is on the line, calling from Rochester in New York.

RICH (Caller): Okay, you touched on two - the two interesting things to me. Number one is: How many of the riders were taken off of the table, and which ones were left on? And also: As far as Boehner going to the Democrats, would that be good for - I know it would hurt him with the right of his party, but would that strengthen him in the eyes of the country in general, do you think?

CONAN: Well, let me just explain: Policy riders are these ideas that were passed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, things like defund Planned Parenthood or defund any - don't send any federal money to any organization that also does abortions. Planned Parenthood does not use federal money for abortions, it's illegal. But they would also do any number of other things - change the Clean Air Act, for example. But Ron Elving, go ahead.

ELVING: Well, the caller has two excellent questions. Number one: How many policy riders were there at one time, and how many of them survived onto the bill? It's an uncertain number, how many were on, because it is not clear how many the Republicans were really pushing.

There were many, many things that at one time were considered, and I couldn't give you an exact figure, but it was a great - it was certainly dozens of issues they wanted to put onto this agreement. And it really centered - it really boiled down very quickly to a couple of the ones that Neal just mentioned, that the Republicans really were insisting on defunding Planned Parenthood. They were not insisting on what Michele Bachmann was referring to, taking away all the funding for the Affordable Health Care Act passed a year ago - Obamacare, as she calls it. And they were also insisting - and Speaker Boehner was particularly insisting - on a couple of policy riders affecting just the District of Columbia, preventing the District of Columbia from using its own local tax funds to fund any kind of abortion for low-income people seeking an abortion, not federal money, because that's been illegal since the 1970s, but not to be able to use their own tax money to fund abortion, and also to make sure that a certain voucher program continued that Speaker Boehner's taken a personal interest in.

CONAN: That's an education - a voucher for schools.

ELVING: A voucher for schools, exactly. So those riders remained in, even though the big ones, for Planned Parenthood and defunding the health care act and a number of other things having to do with greenhouse gas emission regulation and so on, were all stripped away. So a couple of little ones survived.

CONAN: One that did get in, though, involves the Endangered Species Act.

ELVING: Yes, and there's a particular wolf in Montana and other places that has been on the endangered species list, and therefore any kind of control of that particular animal has been restricted by federal law.

Many in Montana are upset with these wolves. They've been killing elk and sheep and other things that people value more highly than they value wolves in Montana. And so they've been lobbying to get this particular animal off the endangered species list, and it appears that that was accomplished as a policy rider on this particular budget act. That has already been praised by the two Democratic senators from Montana, Jon Tester and Max Baucus. So that appears to be in the deal.

And there are other little things in there, one suspects. That's why we're waiting for the magic moment, which appears to be later tonight. They have to put the actual legislative language in by 11:00 o'clock, or before midnight tonight, if they want to have a vote on this on Wednesday, so that we don't have another shutdown scenario next - this Thursday. So in order to avoid that, we really need to see the bill before midnight tonight. So we're anxiously awaiting all the details.

CONAN: I think you misspoke: One senator from each party from each party from the state of Montana.

ELVING: I'm sorry...

CONAN: But in any case...

ELVING: No, no, Jon Tester's a Democrat.

CONAN: Forgive me. Then - of course then I'm wrong. I should never have...

ELVING: It's rare to have - well, never mind.

CONAN: Never mind. And the other - quickly, the other part of Rich's question: If speaker Boehner reaches out to get Democratic votes to pass this in the House, might that not improve his standing with the public?

ELVING: You know, I would think that the public, as opposed to the base of the Republican Party within the House of Representatives itself, would actually not see anything wrong with having votes of both parties in support of a budget agreement that was negotiated by both parties.

It doesn't seem that there would be anything wrong with that, but it has to do with his internal standing and his reputation for being able to deliver the votes of his own party.

That is very important to a speaker, any speaker. It's particularly important to this speaker, because he is not seen as being necessarily a creature, if you will, of the new Republican spirit associated with the Tea Party.

CONAN: If you're the speaker of the House of Representatives and you can't get the majority, a majority of your own party to vote on critical legislation, some people say you're not the speaker anymore.

ELVING: That would be the argument.

CONAN: All right. Ron Elving, stay with us. We're talking about what happened last week to get this budget deal through. What's in it, so much as we know, and what may happen to unravel it? And, well, the next battle coming up. Get used to the expression debt ceiling. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

Federal workers, pundits and reporters kept their eyes glued to countdown clocks on Friday as Congress and the president worked deep into the night to hammer out a budget.

(Soundbite of news broadcasts)

Unidentified Woman #1: Thirteen hours left for lawmakers to reach a budget deal and prevent that government shutdown.

Unidentified Woman #2: Twelve hours to go.

Unidentified Man #1: Less than nine until the federal government...

Unidentified Man #2: ...may be forced to shut down just six hours from now.

Unidentified Man #3: With five hours and counting...

Unidentified Man #4: Four hours and 44 minutes until...

Unidentified Man #5: Four and a half hours...

Unidentified Man #6: Countdown to the shutdown...

Unidentified Woman #3: Shut down...

Unidentified Man #7: Nearing the midnight hour, at which time the federal government will effectively shut down...

Unidentified Man #8: And they'll be shutting down.

Unidentified Woman #4: Shut down...

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Good evening, everyone. I'm pleased that Senator Reid and I and the White House have been able to come to an agreement that will, in fact, cut spending and keep our government open.

CONAN: All right, thanks to our friends at WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY for putting that together. At nearly the last minute, there was a deal, nearly $39 billion cut from government spending this year.

If you've got questions on how they got there and what it means going forward, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get another caller on. Ron Elving, our senior Washington editor, is our guest. And this is Felisa(ph) and Felisa with us from Richmond.

FELISA (Caller): Hi. I guess I'm really confused about something. If this budget talk is all about real money, real numbers, then how is it that we need to cut so much from budgets, and yet there's also talk of ignoring or not raising the debt ceiling? I mean, does it mean that we care about the debt 20 years from now, but we don't care about defaulting on our debt in July?

CONAN: Okay, Ron, can you help her out?

ELVING: The debt ceiling that we're talking about is immediate. It is in the present. We're talking about a debt ceiling that was set several year ago at 14 and a quarter trillion dollars. This debt ceiling idea goes back a number of years, and...

CONAN: By a ceiling, it means the United States government cannot borrow any more than $14.25 trillion.

ELVING: Even though the federal government goes on, year after year, deficit spending, which means we get closer and closer to that limit with every passing year, or at least that's been the case for the last approximate decade.

We had hit a point of approximate budget balance, but we won't go into that. It was about the year 2000. So as we keep adding, we get closer to that limit. Now we're bumping up against it.

If we actually should hit it without raising it, that would mean that the federal government was not allowed to borrow anymore. So obligations coming due, as Treasury notes and all kinds of other issues from the government come due regularly, would not be replaceable. We couldn't borrow any new money to replace - we couldn't pay out on the obligations that were coming due, and without being able to that, the Treasury Department can't continue to operate the government.

FELISA: I guess that's my question then. If these things happen, then what is the real concern about this long-range future of America? The ideas don't seem to mesh for me.

ELVING: Well, the debt ceiling would need to be raised in the short run to prevent that particular crisis. But assuming that that gets done, then there is a larger question out there down the road: How much longer do we want to continue relying on deficit spending?

FELISA: But isn't the upcoming battle the idea that the debt ceiling will not be raised?

CONAN: Well, there are a lot of people - well, I can think of some people in both parties, but the majority conservatives who say it is irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling unless we get some concessions from the administration on more deep cuts that will prevent us having to ever do that ever, ever again.

FELISA: Huh. And, well, the other thing that seems to be missing is that - I mean, if I overspend on a tropical vacation, it seems to me that if I don't have enough money, I might take on a second job to earn enough money, but it seems to me that what our government, what the opposition party seems to be saying is, well, we'll just cut and cut and cut until we don't have anything left and we won't bring in any more revenue. I guess I'm not understanding that either.

CONAN: So raising taxes would be the equivalent, in that analogy, of the second job. Felisa, thanks very much for the call.

So Ron, taxes are off the table?

ELVING: Taxes appear to be off the table from the standpoint of Republicans in Congress. Now, there are those who believe that we need to take a look at revenues in a number of different ways, the most obvious of which would be to go back to the tax cuts, tax cuts that were passed in 2001, 2003, and either eliminate them all or at least eliminate the ones for the most affluent taxpayers.

If you took it at $250,000, as was the proposal last year, that would bring in enough revenue to either offset some of these cuts, make them less necessary, or make a real dent in the deficit over the years, especially as you go out five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. That's where it really explodes, those tax cuts do.

But the philosophies between the two parties have always been somewhat different, but they are really diverging in our time, and the Republicans are insisting not only that we not increase revenues but that we lower tax rates on the upper-income groups.

CONAN: We have a tweet from Charles Emerson(ph): Did NPR sustain a budget cut as a result of the deal?

ELVING: Well, I suspect that we did, although it is not clear yet. As I said...

CONAN: It would have been CPB that would've gotten the cut, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

ELVING: That's right, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is part of the part of the government that appears to be subject to a $1 billion across-the-board cut across that whole part of the government. So we don't know how much of that goes to CPB. We don't know how much of that will come(ph) to monies that would have affected NPR or our member stations that purchase our programming.

So there would appear to be some impact. We just don't know exactly how much yet. One thing I should say, though, quickly: One of the policy riders that was proposed at one time for this budget agreement would have totally defunded NPR, a bill that has already passed the House of Representatives. That particular policy rider was not part of the final package.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian, and Brian with us from Jackson in Michigan.

BRIAN (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRIAN: What I don't understand is with the new plan, Ryan's new plan, I mean he's talking about taking the high end down from 35 to 25. We've seen the last decade, where the average worker rate actually went down. And I believe the top income went up seven and a half percent a year or something close to that.

They doubled the amount of assets that they own. I think we have like 400 billionaires who control (technical difficulties) percent of the assets. Now, you take that into consideration, and you know, you have all this talk about not raising it. You know, the rest of Americans got really saturated with, you know, their share, but they insist on doing this.

We have businesses that most of that top end is controlling that money, they're sitting on $2 trillion of cash that they're not spending. So they have the money. It's not like they need the tax cuts to invest it. They have it. They're just not doing it.

To me, it almost seems like it's a form of extortion. You know, you give us tax cuts and more of this and more of that, or we're just not going to invest, or if we are, we're going to go overseas. It sounds like a Catch-22. And why the Democrats are not pushing this, are not saying stronger - hey, this has to be part of it, they've gotten their share, they've gotten more than their share, something's got to be done. I'll take my question off the air.

CONAN: All right, Brian. And just a question on timing. We were talking about this year's budget. That was the deal reached last week, which they're writing today and will disclose the details of which later tonight so the House can vote on it Thursday, and the Senate as well, and hopefully avoid a government shutdown.

Then we were talking about the debt ceiling. That's coming up in May and probably will spill over into June, as they shuffle some money around and extend the clock a little bit.

This is - was Paul Ryan's, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, he issued a proposal last week about the 2012 budget, next year's budget, and it laid out big cuts for Medicaid and Medicare, privatizing essentially Medicare and a lot of other things, but did not include cuts to the Defense Department, did not really touch Social Security, and as he said, lowered taxes rather than raising them on the rich. Ron.

ELVING: All correct. And those are really the three big things that are out before us right now. The most immediate one is the smallest. The debt ceiling is next, but it is a very significant issue. And then ultimately the Paul Ryan budget, which I believe the House will pass this week, the House will. The Senate is not interested in it. The Senate is going to stonewall it, I suspect.

But the House is going to pass this budget from Paul Ryan, which is quite a drastic change of priorities. With respect to Medicare and Medicaid, it is quite drastic. It cuts much more deeply into all the kinds of programs that are being cut in this current-year budget, this today budget, and then it does make these further changes in the tax code, where the rates are lowered, to some degree the base is broadened to try to catch more income, to eliminate some deductions - for instance, mortgage deductions for second homes, mortgage deductions for homes over a certain value, things of that nature.

But it does clearly express the philosophy that by lowering tax rates, including on the highest taxable incomes, you are actually, in some sense or another, increasing the long-term revenue by increasing economic output.

This is what's known as supply-side economics. It was the heart and essence of the Reagan program 30 years ago.

CONAN: Some call it trickle-down.

ELVING: Well, it's also been called trickle-down. That goes back a century, to call it that. But in many respects this new proposal for forward years from Paul Ryan not only recalls Paul Ryan - I mean Ronald Reagan 30 years ago - but also does recall the Republican thinking of the 1920s, of the era of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

CONAN: And we know what happened after that.

ELVING: Politically, we know what happened.

CONAN: So as we look ahead to this proposal, though, by Congressman Ryan, was the first real statement by a player, if you will, somebody who's going to be playing an important part in this conversation and saying, this is what I think we should do. All of a sudden, it seems that the president wants to make a statement about what he thinks we ought to do.

ELVING: That's right. And just two days from now, Wednesday afternoon, we expect the president to make a speech at George Washington University here in Washington, outlining a broader program, a longer term program than we have heard from him, even in his own budgets as a president, responding, I think clearly, not only to the crisis moment for this year's budget and to the debt ceiling issue, but also to the, if you will, serve that we have received here from Paul Ryan.

Paul Ryan is getting a lot of kudos for at least saying, look, folks. It's not just waste, fraud and abuse. We can't just tighten it up a little bit here. And we can't just say we're against unpopular programs. We are not going to deal with trillions of dollars until we start dealing with popular programs, popular programs like Medicare, which is enormously popular, and Medicaid, which has done so much to get health care to the poor. We have to deal with programs like that if we want to deal in trillions. And we have to deal with the long-term revenue question too.

CONAN: In the meantime, we talked about Speaker Boehner and his difficulties with his party. The president has some difficulties with his party as well.

This is from Paul Krugman in his op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning. This is the Nobel-prize winning economist and liberal. What have they done with President Obama? What happened to the inspirational figure his supporters thought they elected? Who is this bland, timid guy who doesnt seem to stand for anything in particular?

ELVING: The caller who we talked to last was asking a pretty obvious question, I think, about the approach of the Democrats on this issue of revenues. Why are they not more willing to talk about who should be paying more for this government from their point of view? And that is a big question that people have been putting before the president. He essentially gave in in December in exchange for some things that were important to him, including unemployment benefits.

CONAN: And benefited in the polls.

ELVING: And benefitted in the polls. But one of the things he was doing is, what he was giving on the tax position. He was saying, we're going to extend the tax cuts from 2001 and 2003...

CONAN: And make this an issue in the next election.

ELVING: That's right. Put it up two years, but give the tax break from 2001 and '03 to all incomes, including the highest incomes. And a lot of people - certainly, Paul Krugman among them - were terribly upset with the president for caving in on that particular one. And in this particular instance, in this particular budget deal, a lot of people think he shouldn't be saying, yes, you can have 38 billion in new cuts without insisting that the Republicans, on their side, either make some cuts in programs they like - defense programs perhaps - or accept some changes in revenue.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, about what happened last week and what's likely to happen this week and down the road from there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Steven(ph), Steven with us from Center Valley in Pennsylvania. Steven, are you there?

STEVEN (Caller): Yes. Hold on. Yes. My question was about the - why isn't there being more cuts in the defense budget since it accounts for the majority of our current budget, I think at about $700 billion now?

CONAN: I think your billion dollar figure is more or less correct. Whether it's the majority or not, it depends on how you calculate that. But Medicare and Medicaid are certainly, combined, a lot bigger than that. But Ron Elving, nevertheless, it's a huge part of the budget. I'm not going to deny that for a second, Steven. And why are there no cuts in defense in this year's budget or, indeed, Congressman Ryan proposes for next year's budget?

ELVING: There are only marginal cuts in either the president's budget or in the Ryan budget for defense. And I think the simplest way to answer that question is to say we are in two wars and a no-fly zone enforcement action. We have a lot of people engaged overseas. And the general perception of the public is: we can't cut defense in a moment when we are, in some sense or another, at war.

Now, this isn't World War II. It's not the Vietnam War. But we do have a lot of commitments overseas, including a couple of hot wars. And the polls all show that people think that we should support our troops. And when you get right down into all of the problematic detail on how many weapon systems we're buying that don't have anything to do with those wars, surely, you could find savings. But the politicians that make these decisions are driven largely by the public's perception of what is necessary and what is not. And we have not yet reached a consensus that we can have a peace dividend, when we have no peace.

CONAN: Steven, thanks very much for the call. An email question, this is from Jeff(ph) in San Carlos. Given the complexity of all of these budget changes, where on the Web can we find all of the details for the current bill and for the complete budget? When the current bill is finished, I guess.

ELVING: Well, if someone finds that on the Web right now, I'd love to know the site, because as far as we know, they still have not released that from the House Appropriations Committee.

We will be sharing everything that we can learn about the details of this deal right on npr.org. And there should be other places where it becomes available as well. But we're going to try to get everything we can learn, everything that we can get on a piece of paper about the details of this deal up on our website as quickly as we can later tonight.

There should also be availability through the House of Representatives websites, dot gov. I mean, you have to go to uscongress.gov. I should be giving the exact URL, which I can't do but...

CONAN: Go to npr.org and you will find the links - yeah.

ELVING: And we will direct people to the links. We will give the links by which you can find every jot and tittle.

CONAN: And this is from Pearson(ph), who wants to know: please tell us where the national debt came from. I thought President Clinton came to close balancing the federal deficit. You've stated, I believe, the deficit is around 13 or 14 trillion. What was the federal debt in 2000, when President Bush took over?

ELVING: The federal debt has been around practically as long as the United States has been around. We ran up some of it in Revolutionary War. It has, usually, not been overwhelmingly large figure. It has been paid down in good times and over the 200 and some years of the republic. Obviously, went way up during the Civil War, went up in World War I, got enormous after World War II, and then that was paid down over a period of time.

In the '60s, in the '70s, in the '80s, the prevailing philosophy in Washington was that debt did not matter as much. We could have guns and butter. And even though the Vietnam War was largely financed by a tax increase, in the period of time thereafter, a tax increase has became decreasingly supportable. And in the 1980s, with the Reagan administration, while Ronald Reagan campaigned against the national debt, he raised defense spending and cut taxes and the national debt went up during his years as president quite a bit.

Then in the '90s, partly because President Clinton and a Republican Congress got together in a bipartisan way and agreed upon a lot of pretty painful cuts, and because there were some revenue increases from earlier years, we did reach a point of projected balance.

Since 2000, we've been going the other way, with those wars that I mentioned that weren't financed, with additions to Medicare that weren't financed and with those tax cuts from 2001 and 2003.

CONAN: Ron Elving, as always, thanks very much for your time. We will await with bated breath what happens in Congress this week and what happens later today when the details of that bill are published. We appreciate your time.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, Karen Greenberg joins us on the Opinion Page about the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Guantanamo Bay. Stay with us. This NPR News.

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