‘We’re like Thelma and Louise’: Republicans shrug at deficits under Trump
In 2011, with the nation still climbing back from the Great Recession, Republicans threatened global markets by refusing to raise the federal debt limit unless President Barack Obama and the Democrats agreed to steep across-the-board spending cuts for years to come.
Eight years later — and $7.7 trillion more in debt — President Trump and GOP lawmakers have agreed this week to lift the debt ceiling again without a fuss, and with hundreds of billions in new spending on top of it.
The deal marks a significant capitulation to Trump after years of brinkmanship from Republicans claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility, underscoring the president’s far-reaching hold over his party and a disregard for the budget-cutting and debt reduction that conservatives long claimed as priorities.
The move has sparked cries of hypocrisy from many Democrats, who endured routine GOP lecturing about spending and the federal deficit throughout Obama’s two terms in office.
With the agreement, Trump has effectively shelved a debate about the nation’s ballooning deficits as he turns his attention to pursuing protectionist trade policies, job growth and hard-line immigration measures, along with his grievances with rivals and Democrats.
And few Democratic leaders or presidential candidates are calling for fiscal austerity as Republicans shift away from a message of fiscal conservatism. Most 2020 Democratic contenders are instead calling for increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and expanding long-term spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who made fiscal responsibility a cornerstone of his 2012 presidential bid against Obama, declined to comment Tuesday on the pact or on the GOP’s drift. “I really don’t have anything for you today on that,” he said.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Senate Budget Committee member and Trump loyalist, said: “There are a lot of things in it I don’t like, but it’s a compromise deal.”
Under Trump, federal debt has surged to $22 trillion and the annual deficit is expected to reach $1 trillion this fiscal year. Trump claimed during the 2016 campaign that he could eliminate the debt in eight years; instead, it has grown $3 trillion during his tenure.
Yet the current agreement, which would raise spending limits by $320 billion and suspend the federal debt ceiling until 2021, has only generated scattered grousing among some Republicans and few signs of revolt.
Inside the White House, there is a firm belief that the state of the economy is the paramount issue for Trump’s reelection bid, driving many strategic decision on policy and politics, such as calling on the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates and avoiding a debt-limit standoff that could rattle markets, according to three Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) bemoaned what he considered runaway government spending: “You don’t have to be Euclid to understand the math here. We’re like Thelma and Louise in that car headed toward the cliff,” he said. But he said he is open to supporting the agreement.
Several lawmakers who described themselves as fiscal conservatives have retired during Trump’s presidency, such as former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and former senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), leaving a smaller bloc on Capitol Hill to make a case for overhauling federal spending.
“Bad just got worse,” former congressman Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who is considering a presidential primary bid against Trump, said in an interview. “No one is challenging this president or this thinking. The deal is the codification of a death knell for a Republican Party that once put these issues at the epicenter of what we believed — and there is so little outrage.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who entered Congress in 2011 as a House member elected in the tea-party wave, said Tuesday he was not planning to support the deal based on his initial review and said it “ejects” any serious deliberation on the debt and deficits for “this whole session of Congress.”
Still, Lankford acknowledged that after nearly a decade of retreat on fiscal matters, the GOP might not have much standing to push future presidents of either party for discipline.
“That credibility’s long gone,” he said.
Veteran Republicans said the GOP’s current position is a reminder that Ryan’s emphasis on putting fiscal conservatism at the fore of the party’s agenda was likely an aberration. Republicans, these people said, have always been more comfortable with boosting defense spending and concentrating on spurring economic growth, rather than enacting budget cuts, going back to Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“It was never the party of Paul Ryan,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who promised to balance budgets when he ran for president in 2012. “He’s a brilliant guy, but he filled a policy gap. The reality here is that Republicans were never going to get spending cuts with Speaker Pelosi running the House and they didn’t want an economic meltdown or shutdown this summer.”
For both parties, the deal is the culmination of years of slipping fiscal discipline in Washington.
Under government-wide spending cuts agreed to by Congress during the Obama years under the 2011 Budget Control Act, $822 billion was set to be cut from federal spending between fiscal 2013 and 2021. Republican leaders have long pointed to this legislation as proof of their commitment to fiscal conservatism.
But if this week’s deal passes and is signed into law, Congress will have added $810 billion of those agreed upon cuts back into the budget. And that spending adjustment does not include the additional hundreds of billions in spending that has been approved in recent years for disaster relief and other projects.
Top Trump aides, such as economic adviser Larry Kudlow, have urged him to concentrate on economic growth rather than the deficit during the latest negotiations, according to GOP lawmakers and officials involved in the talks.
Those in the White House who have sought restraints, such as acting budget director Russell T. Vought have seen their demands discarded in the agreement that was announced on Monday by Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
When a Fox News host expressed concern Tuesday about the deal being a “spend-a-palooza,” Kudlow said, “We never get the spending restraints that we’d like to get,” and argued that most Americans are “happy campers” about the economy. Vought also was on Fox News on Tuesday defending the deal.
Trump nevertheless insists that he will eventually move in a more fiscally conservative direction. He has instructed aides to prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House, five people briefed on the discussions said. But he has not told aides whether he will be open to major cuts to Medicare, one of the government’s costliest programs, the people said.
Democrats, more than ever, see the GOP’s claims of fiscal discipline as a sham — a cudgel to be used against Democrats when they are in power and to be set aside when they are not. The ultimate proof, in their view, was the 2017 Republican-authored tax law, which was estimated by congressional scorekeepers to add more than $1.5 trillion to the budget deficit over a decade. Republicans ignored warnings from the Congressional Budget Office and other reputable economists that the tax cuts would not offset the deficit.
“I think it will be almost impossible for them to reverse course after these years of fiscal irresponsibility,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Tuesday, noting that the last budget surplus occurred under Democrat Bill Clinton..”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a businessman elected in 2010 as a fiscal fix-it man, said he is worried the GOP is losing credibility on fiscal matters.
“We’re whistling past the graveyard in terms what’s going to happen in terms of the debt and deficit at some point in time,” he said.