Republicans Learn to Love Debt
By BRYCE COVERTAUG. 25, 2017
It’s finally time to stop believing Republicans when they say they’re
the party of balanced budgets.
For eight years, Republicans warned the American public that we were
hurtling toward certain fiscal doom. President Barack Obama’s oversight
of the deficit was leaving “America’s future in the balance,” the
Republican National Committee said in 2011. A year later, Senator Mitch
McConnell said the federal debt was “the nation’s most serious
long-term problem.” The debt was “killing our economy,” according to
John Boehner in 2013, when he was the House speaker.
President Trump, ostensibly the party’s standard-bearer, made it clear
Thursday that he’s not very concerned about the national debt. In a
series of tweets, he blamed Mr. McConnell and Speaker Paul D. Ryan for
their handling of legislation to raise the debt ceiling, something
Republicans argued for years had to be paired with spending cuts.
“Could have been so easy — now a mess!” the president said.
He’s right. It is a mess. But it’s not a mess Mr. McConnell and Mr.
Ryan created this summer. It’s a mess Republicans laid the groundwork
for over eight years of impeding a presidency and an economy because of
their professed desire for fiscal restraint.
In early 2016, the R.N.C. was still warning about “an unsustainable
path toward crippling debt” after President Obama released his final
budget. Mr. Trump got in on the game during the campaign, blaming Mr.
Obama for leaving the country buried under a “mountain of debt.”
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But once in office, Mr. Trump put forward some broad outlines for a tax
reform package, signaling that he wants a variety of large cuts,
regardless of whether they increase the deficit.
The Trump administration claimed that the proposed tax cuts would pay
for themselves through faster economic growth. But past experience
hasn’t borne that out, and it seems nearly impossible to find an
economist who thinks it’s a viable theory.
None of this takes into account Mr. Trump’s plans for spending. In his
first budget, he increased funding for the military and his border wall
while still promising to eliminate the deficit in 10 years. Once again,
economic growth was offered as the magic elixir, though the
Congressional Budget Office thinks otherwise.
On cue, Mr. Ryan said President Trump’s budget was “right on target”
even as he released a statement about it that criticized Mr. Obama’s
“bloated budgets that never balance.”
This about-face is not new for the party of financial responsibility.
President Ronald Reagan promised to balance the federal budget and
then, while in office, pushed through tax cuts and military spending
that more than doubled the national debt. President George W. Bush
promised to pay down the debt only to sign tax cuts and defense
increases that doubled it. Republicans have a pattern of caring deeply
about government finances while out of power and then forgetting those
concerns when they’re in control.
But this particular change of heart on federal debt follows years of
using the fear of rising government costs to severely hamper Mr.
Obama’s agenda. Republicans’ opposition to spending increases was part
of how the 2009 stimulus package, passed to rescue a sinking economy,
got whittled down from what would probably have been a more effective
Mr. Ryan called it a “wasteful spending spree” at the time, despite the
fact that most analysis found that any debt added would eventually be
fully offset by economic growth. Talk of a second round of stimulus was
dead on arrival with Republicans. So a sluggish recovery was laid at
Mr. Obama’s feet.
The debt fear-mongering had other negative consequences. In 2013,
government spending was put on a destructively tight leash by
sequestration, automatic spending caps that were meant to spark a grand
bargain on the budget. Instead, they reinforced Republican thinking
that federal spending had to be reined in. Republicans argued against
speedy emergency funding when floods or hurricanes hit various parts of
the country, delaying much-needed help, and tried to push Mr. Obama
into bargains on spending cuts.
Democrats have turned the Republicans’ tactics against them, stating
that Mr. Trump’s policies are bad because of what they will do to
government finances. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, called
his tax plan “deficit-exploding.”
It must be satisfying to turn Republicans’ own debt arguments back on
them. But the honest objection Democrats should raise is not how things
will be paid for, but whether they’re worth the cost.
Dildo Baggins <firstname.lastname@example.org>