Few issues so clearly define the extent of the Trump takeover of the Republican Party as the GOP’s wholesale abandonment of concern about deficits and debt. Once the principle talking point of nearly every Republican “fiscal responsibility” is now as quaint as a president who isn’t an unindicted co-conspirator.
The most recent assessment of the federal budget deficit by the independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as the Washington Post notes, drew a collective shrug on Capitol Hill. Consider the CBO’s language about the issue.
“The federal budget deficit was $895 billion for the first 11 months of fiscal year 2018 … $222 billion more than the shortfall recorded during the same period last year. Revenues were 1 percent higher than in the same period in fiscal year 2017, but outlays rose by about 7 percent.”
CBO confirmed what everyone from eastern Washington to the White House knows that the deficit increase “was almost entirely due to the new Republican tax law and Congress' routine decision to increase spending.”
And, oh, the deficit is on pace to top a cool trillion dollars by the end of the current fiscal year. The total debt is north of $21 trillion. So much for fiscal responsibility or the abandonment thereof.
It’s difficult to find a better example of where GOP legislators have gone from deficit hawks to missing in action than Idaho. Senator Mike Crapo still has a debt counter feature on his official website, but you need to go way back to the Obama Administration to find an even remotely recent hint that he is as hawkish on debt as he once was. In January of 2016, after blasting Obama for pursing “more unrestrained spending,” Crapo lamented that we “continue to ignore our debt and simply try to spend our way into prosperity with borrowed money."
That was then, this is now and with a Republican in the White House Crapo has clammed up. You can search high and low on his website, in public statements and interviews and not find a word of criticism for “Trump’s exploding deficit” or the “growing national fiscal crisis.”
Senator Jim Risch never takes on the Trump Administration, of course, but a year ago he condemned a “pattern of reckless, uncontrolled spending [that] threatens the future of our country and ensures our children and grandchildren have a bleak financial future. Congress must cut spending and recognize that we do not have a no-limit credit card to fund everything everyone wants.”
That is simply a hollow, cynical and hypocritical assessment. Republicans control both houses of Congress and the executive branch. They largely determine spending priorities and they alone passed the further enrich-the-rich Trump tax cut that has, but I repeat myself, exploded the deficit. Crapo and Risch were, of course, enthusiastic supporters of the tax cuts – each claiming the tax cuts would pay for themselves; they don’t – and in order to maintain deniability in the shell game that passes for fiscal policy in Washington, D.C. each routinely votes against spending bills. Such an approach is the political equivalent of eating your chocolate cake, while ignoring the peas. The deficit hawks have flown the coop.
Democrats certainly don’t have clean hands on spending issues, but to his credit Obama did convene a bi-partisan effort to address the steadily worsening problem. Crapo served on that commission – the Simpson-Bowles Commission – and actually endorsed a reasonable approach of spending cuts and tax increases. On his website he says “working with both Republicans and Democrats, the Commission examined all aspects of our nation’s budget and tax code and proposed recommendations to Congress and to then-President Obama for consideration.” Crapo neglects to note that then-Republican Speaker John Boehner bailed on a deal with Obama when he couldn’t deliver GOP votes in the House.
Today Simpson-Bowles seems like ancient history and given the GOP hegemony in Washington, and the reluctance of people like Crapo and Risch to take on their own party on taxes, any deficit-debt progress seems like a pipe dream. The reality is that the GOP has, at least since Dwight Eisenhower, valued tax cutting more than it has valued a balanced approach to fiscal policy. In fact, the Trump-era GOP has essentially declared “deficits be damned,” with House Republicans wanting to cut taxes even more before the current Congress ends.
Perhaps, given the political climate of our day, only people no longer in Congress can speak truth about taxes and spending and debt. “History will show you there’s no country in history that’s been strong and free and bankrupt,” John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition who retired in 2010, recently told the Washington Post. Or as Utah senate candidate Mitt Romney recently reminded his fellow Republicans, “We called for an amendment to balance the budget. Just a few years ago, the Tea Party movement brought new energy to the issue. But now that Republicans are in charge in Washington, we appear to have become silent about deficits and debt.”
Don’t forget to remind your grand kids who bequeathed such a mess.
Marc C. Johnson was press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His biography of Montana New Deal-era Sen. Burton K. Wheeler will be published early next year by the University of Oklahoma Press. He lives in Manzanita, OR.