There is a long-running, almost metaphysical, argument about the GOP’s deficit hawkery. One school of thought holds that it has always been pure cynicism. Republicans passed the Bush tax cuts without offsets and paid for neither Medicare Part D nor the Iraq War. When they began decrying the deficit and debt during President Obama’s administration, under this theory, it was nothing but opportunistic political attacks, and it was obvious they would be abandoned as soon as Republicans regained power.
The response many Republicans gave was that the party had lost its way under George W. Bush, but it had recognized its mistakes and rediscovered its fiscally conservative soul. The Tea Party and its relentless campaign of primary challenges was proof the Republican Party had changed, and would stay changed.
The House and Senate passage of the GOP tax bills shows the cynics had it right.
In the Obama years, Republicans feared a debt crisis
From 1993 to 2016, Charlie Sykes was a right-wing talk show host on WTMJ in Milwaukee. That made him a conservative eminence in Wisconsin, the home state of Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Johnson. Sykes interviewed them dozens of times, emceed events at which they appeared, introduced them before screaming crowds. And in speech after speech, interview after interview, they delivered the same message: Debt was the country’s most pressing problem.
“Ron Johnson used to joke about being the prince of darkness,” Sykes recalls. “Everywhere he would go he’d have these charts about the crisis posed by the debt. He became a notorious downer. He was so intense about it.”
The same was true of Ryan, who became famous for his slick presentations on America’s coming fiscal crash. “The facts are very, very clear,” he says in this 2011 video, “the United States is headed towards a debt crisis.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” Sykes continues. “I believed them. I considered myself a deficit hawk as a result.”
Today, Paul Ryan is the speaker of the House of Representatives and Ron Johnson is a key vote in the Senate. Together, they are shepherding forward a tax bill that is expected to add more than a trillion dollars to the national debt in the first 10 years and, if their tax cuts are extended as they hope, far more after that. They are doing so despite years of arguing that the national debt is the most severe problem facing the United States, despite running for reelection promising balanced budgets and fiscal restraint.
“The hypocrisy is astounding,” says Marc Goldwein, policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The wages of nihilism
Since regaining power in January, congressional Republicans have embarked on a relentless campaign of proving themselves pure nihilists. The GOP spent the Obama years in a frenzy over debt and deficits. Now they are passing a tax bill that will add trillions to the national debt, complete with budget gimmicks that, if they play out the way Republicans are publicly hoping they will play out, will lead to an even higher price tag. That bill includes repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate without any replacement — a policy that will break Republican promises to stabilize insurance markets, lower premiums, and ensure more affordable and widespread health coverage.
The nihilism extends to process too. Republicans complained bitterly during the Obama administration that Democrats weren’t holding enough hearings, that they weren’t leaving sufficient time to read final bill text, that they were passing important legislation on party-line votes, that they were using the budget reconciliation process improperly. Now they are passing sweeping tax reform through the budget reconciliation process with no hearings, no effort at bipartisan compromise, and bill text that was not made public until hours before the final vote. In a darkly comic twist, changes were handwritten into the legislation in the final hours:
I was just handed a 479-page tax bill a few hours before the vote. One page literally has hand scribbled policy changes on it that can’t be read. This is Washington, D.C. at its worst. Montanans deserve so much better. pic.twitter.com/q6lTpXoXS0— Senator Jon Tester (@SenatorTester) December 2, 2017
There is no framework under which these moves appear principled, no explanation under which the cynicism abates. Some Republicans have tried to argue that the tax bill will pay for itself through increased economic growth, but there is not a single economic analysis that agrees; the Joint Committee on Taxation, for instance, says the law will add a trillion dollars to the deficit even accounting for economic growth.
Perhaps that is why even Paul Ryan sounds embarrassed making these claims. “I’m telling you that’s what I believe will happen. I’m not going to tell you I’m sure,” he said.
Nihilism begets nihilism. Democrats feel like fools for taking Republican deficit concerns seriously, for trying to play by the rules and pay for their legislation and show they were acting in good faith.
“Part of me feels like a sucker now,” says Jason Furman, who served as chief economist to President Obama. “Part of me feels a bit like the next time Democrats are in power they shouldn’t pay for anything and shouldn’t use Congressional Budget Office scores. I try to resist that mentality. I don’t think we should chase people down to the bottom of a toilet. But it seems an awful lot of people are comfortable at the bottom of a toilet.”
This is what scares the real budget hawks — that a world in which Republicans have shown you can get away with not paying for anything, with completely ignoring the budget scorekeepers and the economic analyses, is a world in which Democrats will begin to think paying for their legislation is foolish too, and so both parties will become increasingly fiscally irresponsible.
“If Republicans can spend a trillion and a half dollars on tax cuts and say, ‘Our own models tell us it will pay for itself,’ why can’t Democrats do Berniecare and say it’ll lead to huge growth?” asks Goldwein. “I hear really smart and really responsible Democrats saying things like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have paid for the ACA.’”
If there are congressional Republicans out there who aren’t pure nihilists, who really do worry about debt and process and the future of the country, they should think a bit harder about what they are unleashing. American politics is governed as much by norms as by rules, as much by expectations of what the other side will do to you as by beliefs about what’s right for you to do to the other side. They should imagine their process, their rules, their blithe dismissal of debt and deficits and arithmetic and process, applied to the vast suite of social democratic spending that today’s Democratic Party wants. They should imagine how tinny, how hypocritical, how cynical they will sound when they complain.