Republicans in Congress have passed a budget resolution. But in the Senate, it cleared only narrowly, 51-49, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, the only Republican vote against it. Total price tag for the budget? $4 trillion. Even by today’s standards, that’s hefty.
For now, it seems, the party of fiscal responsibility is gone. But established Republicans worried about the death of what was once a marquee feature of GOP politics shouldn’t be quite so concerned. Fiscal responsibility will never go fully out of style.
This is a period of transition for the Republican Party. Although it’s still too early to be quite sure what the national party is going to transition into, one thing has stayed the same over the past several decades. Vice President Dick Cheney once quipped that “deficits don’t matter.” He was speaking somewhat narrowly about the cost of fighting a war to win—with the memory of America’s deficit-financed Cold War win still fresh.
Today, the constituency for a balanced budget has become very small, and the constituencies who in effect depend on deficit spending for their share of subsidies, entitlements or other federal benefits is quite large. It encompasses Americans at every economic level, in both parties. It includes corporations and business interests. For the time being, there just isn’t enough of a coalition to impose fiscal responsibility as we knew it toward the end of the 20th century.
To be honest, deficit hawks haven’t always helped burnish the reputation of budget-cutting. Sometimes it has appeared that the importance of the position was primarily to unify Republicans around something they could all agree on because it looked good but would never really have to happen.
Then along came President Donald Trump, well attuned to the fact that many Republican voters had a broadly nationalist and populist interest in protecting some massive government outlays, and only a narrower ideological interest in paring back other kinds of government expenditures and programs. These voters wanted their share, too—and, inevitably, it would not come entirely out of revenues.
Finally, Republicans this year have strained to notch a legislative win, which they sense is important both for matters of pride and for electoral purposes. Congress remains less popular than the president. But with the “repeal and replace” of Obamacare a lost cause, attention has focused on tax relief, which, in turn, required the passage of the budget resolution to smooth the way. Republicans are now scurrying to determine how revenues and tax cuts will be squared in the new budget.
For sheerly political reasons, which shouldn’t be mocked in a democracy going through political change, it makes sense for the GOP to have dialed down the volume on fiscal responsibility.
Nevertheless, Republicans ought to know—like it or not—that they can run from budgetary prudence for a time, but they can’t hide. Democrats will never take a stronger line, ensuring that the GOP owns the basic idea of keeping federal deficit spending manageable at a minimum, and hopefully steadily shrinking. That’ll take much better economic times, however.
Most Americans, including the many saddled with their own debts, can’t see a way to get there without more deficit spending. That may be the case for now. But it won’t always be.
—The Orange County Register (California)