Having won the presidency, the House, and the Senate, the GOP’s first major legislative accomplishment is to… increase spending.
This “accomplishment” is both sad and predictable.
Let’s take the new 2017 bipartisan omnibus spending bill. To avert a looming governmental shutdown, Trump didn’t get his wall funded—and he didn’t get Planned Parenthood defunded. And after all the handwringing in the wake of his proposed budget, which would have taken the knife to most domestic agencies, Trump only trimmed the Environmental Protection Agency by a mere 1 percent.
Freedom Caucus Member Justin Amash called it “another deal to grow government. Instead of compromising to cut spending, each side agrees to let the other side spend more.”
And James Hohmann observed in The Washington Post that “Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal, considering that Republicans have unified control of government.”
It seems that once Republicans gain high office, worries about “generational theft” segue to the “deficits don’t matter” philosophy—when deficit hawks morph into deficit doves.
In 2010, Rep. Paul Ryan speculated that America was about to turn into Greece. And in the 2012 vice presidential debate, Ryan declared, “We’ve got to tackle this debt crisis before it tackles us." The irony, of course, is that he has ascended to the speakership, but his own president is pushing policies that seem likely to substantially increase the debt.
This is a long-standing trend. We might forgive Ronald Reagan for increasing spending (he was busy trying to defeat the Soviet Union, and Democrats in Congress had the power of the purse), but what’s the excuse for George W. Bush—and now Donald J. Trump?
It’s not just the spending bill, either. Some are estimating that Trump’s tax reform outline could increase the debt by trillions of dollars over a decade. Don’t get me wrong. Tax cuts could help grow the economy, create jobs, and broaden the tax revenue base. But the assumption that these tax cuts will pay for themselves is dubious. (Note: Trump is now saying that he would consider a gasoline tax hike to pay for infrastructure.)
In fairness to Ryan, the primary reason for this is that Trump won’t embrace what might be Ryan’s signature issue: entitlement reform. A well-rounded conservative agenda might pair tax reform with sensible entitlement reform (which, aside from national defense, is where the real money is), but Trump has eschewed the latter.
What remains is the bigger story of how, when Democrats are in office, Republicans worry about deficits and the debt, but how they magically forget about all that once they take power. This strikes me as an inexorable structural problem. Almost all of the incentives lead to more spending.
“Name me one politician who tried to cut spending and has been rewarded for it,” said former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston. “Sure there are many Members of the House and Senate who have consistently voted ‘no’ and been considered heroes, but they haven't delivered a spending cut.”
While there are powerful conservative organizations that promote cutting taxes and general fiscal responsibility, no major lobbyists or interest groups dole out support solely to cut spending. Meanwhile, in our action-oriented culture, politicians gain support by putting points on the board—not for taking them off. There are incentives for creating a new program or passing a new bill, not for rolling back spending.
And if the media and the public clamor for the passage of legislation, then how might a Republican president corral enough Democratic votes to make that happen? You guessed it: by increasing spending. Amid criticism from the right over his spending bill, Donald Trump tweeted: “The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there!”
The only way for a Republican president to implement the rest of his agenda—to pass otherwise good policies and to keep the government functioning—is to trade them for pork-barrel appropriations and pet projects.
This structural problem predates Donald Trump, but the “King of Debt” might be even more inclined (than your average Republican) to increase spending if it means extra points on his scoreboard. But the short-term benefits of kicking the can down the road will mean long-term insolvency.
When Democrats were last in charge, they enacted an extremely politically risky health care regime knowing it could cost them control of Congress—or even the presidency. They did this because they believed expanding health coverage was a moral imperative. Republicans have repeatedly said slashing our debt is a moral imperative. When will they act like it?