Deficits, debt and hypocrisy are unholy trinity of politics under McConnell, others
For many of us who have no allegiance to either major party, one of the more attractive features of the Republican Party was its stated aversion to deficit spending, which is useful in recessions but otherwise can cause inflation and saddle future generations with too much debt that crowds out worthy spending.
The main clause in the above sentence is in the past tense for a reason. As a percentage of gross domestic product (a measure of the economy’s ability to generate tax revenue), the national debt (the sum of budget deficits) has grown more under Republican presidents than Democratic ones.
Part of that stemmed from congressional Democrats’ leverage on GOP presidents, but now Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, and under the leadership of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell they have just ballooned the debt by $1.5 trillion with a two-year budget deal — a few weeks after passing a tax cut that has little chance of paying for itself, despite McConnell’s rosy predictions.
“Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” then-Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2004, defending the deficits he and President George W. Bush ran up largely by cutting taxes and invading Iraq. But their deficits were smaller, and they had plausible reasons for them — boosting a sagging economy and waging a war, albeit one of choice. And Barack Obama had a better reason, the Great Recession.
Today, we’re at near-full employment. That’s partly because the percentage of people in the workforce has shrunk a few points, but wages are rising, so the economy needs no fiscal stimulus. But we are getting one, as if we were in another recession — and it has put us on track to have a debt larger than our annual gross domestic product, something we haven’t done since World War II. Interest rates have started to rise, which will make the debt larger. It’s a risky experiment.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, defended the deal by citing its removal of spending caps “that have hamstrung our armed forces and jeopardized our national security.” His press release said nothing about the deficit and debt.
Kentucky’s other senator, deficit hawk Rand Paul, had plenty to say about it. His objection to the bill delayed it long enough to force a brief shutdown of the federal government.
“This new stimulus of deficit spending will be as big as President Obama’s stimulus,” Paul reminded the Senate. “Don’t you remember when Republicans howled to high heaven President Obama was spending us into the gutter, spending us into oblivion? And now Republicans are doing the same thing!”
Paul’s hands were not clean; he had voted for the tax cuts. Hammering his favorite issue, the debt, may have helped him regain credibility. He pulled no punches as he confronted McConnell and other Republicans, asking, “If you were against President Obama’s deficits and now you’re for the Republican deficits, isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?”
In 2009, McConnell called Obama’s stimulus “one of the most expensive votes in history.” After Obama won a second term, McConnell said the debt must be reduced to preserve social programs: “Only one thing can save this country, and that’s to get a handle on this deficit-and-debt issue.” In 2016, he said, “The level of national debt is dangerous and unacceptable.”
It does sound pretty hypocritical, doesn’t it?
To be fair, it must be acknowledged that Republicans are not in full control of the Senate. Under the rule that McConnell defends a Senate institutionalist, he needs 60 votes to pass a bill under normal circumstances, and Republicans have only 51. So they got their military spending, Democrats got their domestic spending, it all went on the federal credit card, and both sides avoided another true government shutdown, the political effect of which was unpredictable.
Liberal commentator Mark Shields said the deal ends the deficit as a political issue, but I disagree. There is growing alarm among economists and others about it, and billionaire H. Ross Perot rode the issue to a lead in the 1992 presidential race before falling victim to his own weirdness. A better candidate could do better with the issue, and might not even have to self-fund if enough business leaders shared the concern.
Shields was right in one sense; the deal does end the deficit as an issue for Republicans (except maybe Paul, who still harbors presidential ambitions). The GOP, yoked to President Trump and his tight hold on a majority of its base, seems to have decided that its main issue is immigration, as defined by Trump and adopted by McConnell in the current debate. So it has become an identity party, like the Democrats. Both are polarizing dead-ends. Would someone please rescue us?
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.