How the Budget Battle of the 1990s Was Won by Gregory Hilton

President Bill Clinton began 1994 by promising to produce a balanced federal budget in a decade. The GOP captured Congress that November with a pledge to balance it in just 7 years. It was the most popular part and the first item in their Contract With America. Clinton opposed the GOP 7 year plan plan and said it was far better to do this in ten years because of “the pain we would inflict on our elderly, our students, and our economy just isn’t worth it.”
The President did not know it then, but America would have balanced budget in just four years. President Clinton began 1995 but advocating numerous new spending programs, but he does deserve credit for abruptly changing course that Spring. The changing is best signified by the most memorable line from his 1996 State of the Union Address: “The era of big government is over.” He would also apologize for raising taxes too much but solid economic growth was setting in by the time of his 1996 re-election campaign. It had nothing to do with Clinton but Americans gave him much of the credit. Clinton’s approval rating increased significantly and so did the job market. Unlike 1993 and 1994, Clinton stayed in the middle and won re-election handily.
Despite his conciliatory rhetoric, Clinton aggressively fought Republicans on budget issues from 1995 through 1997. He never would have agreed to drop many of his spending programs without the GOP Congress. There was a ferocious budget battle and the federal government was shut down for 24 days during the 1995 budget negotiations when President Clinton refused to agree to spending reductions in the GOP budget. He submitted five different budgets in 1995 but none of them was balanced.
Joe Klein described this time in his book, “The Natural:”
“In the summer of 1996, Clinton’s grand first-term dreams had shriveled into a set of proposals. He would spend all of 1997 working on a balanced-budget agreement with the Republicans. The 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement–the first nominally balanced budget in 30 years–received insufficient attention. . . . The 1997 BBA was an achievement ignored by Clinton’s critics on the left (who wanted bigger social programs), on the right (who wanted less spending), in the press (who mostly didn’t notice), and in academia. “These aren’t big pieces of legislation. These are scraps off the table,” said one critic.”
In 1997, the Republican Congress passed a tax-relief and deficit-reduction bill that was resisted but ultimately signed by President Clinton. It lowered the top capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent; created a new $500 child tax credit, and increased the estate tax exemption from $600,000 to $1 million. The result was almost immediate. Capital gains tax payments skyrocketed at the lower rate. This was helped by the use of stock options that were exercised during the internet boom. The result was nearly $90 billion in extra income in the late 1990’s.
This allowed Clinton to propose a balanced budget for 1999 in his 1998 State of the Union message. The proposal came three years ahead of the forecast from1997’s balanced budget pact with the Congress. The compromise that was achieved laid the foundation for the economic boom of 1997, 1998, 1999 and the first half of 2000.
The tax cuts and the capital gains tax reduction caused a burst of tax revenue and this also helped to swell the stock market expansion. Prosperity led to an unprecedented 60% increase in tax income in the final Clinton years. By cutting the rate of taxation, the revenues collected from capital gains were increased by nearly $90 billion, and this outpaced the expectations of even the most optimistic forecasters. This proved that tax rate cuts do work to stimulate economic growth and tax revenue growth as well. There was also an explosion in venture capital activity in the late 1990’s.
In 1995, before the tax cut, just over $8 billion of venture capital was invested into the economy. By 1998, the first full year in which the capital gains tax cuts were in effect, venture capital pumped almost $28 billion into the economy. From 1997 to 2000 the economy grew 4.2% and it was bolstered by technological advances which led to the Internet-based “New Economy.” The so-called Tech or Dot com Bubble lasted from 1998 to 2001.
The downside to all of this is that the crash of the dot-com bubble wiped out $5 trillion in market value of technology companies from March 2000 to October 2002. The dot-com bubble burst on March 10, 2000, when the technology heavy NASDAQ composite index peaked at 5,048.62, more than double its value just a year before.


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