One of the most important biases the news media have is toward the new. “Things Pretty Much As They Always Were” is not news, while “Everything Different Now” most certainly is. That bias, however, can distort our understanding of reality.
As we talk about the new budgeting push from President Trump and Republicans and its impact on the deficit, the truth is that things are just as they always were. And not saying so allows the Republican Party to continue one of its longest-running scams.
On Monday, the Trump administration released its latest budget proposal, a largely symbolic document that nevertheless shows the president’s priorities. It includes drastic cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, while significantly boosting military spending. It also admits that, despite aggressive deployment of the traditional Republican fiscal tools of fairy dust and magic beans, the deficit will not actually be eliminated.
With the passage of the Trump/GOP tax-cut bill (which could explode the deficit by $1 trillion), a budget agreement (which busts spending caps agreed upon in 2011), and this proposal from the White House (which cuts spending, but doesn’t aim for balance), the fiscal path of the Trump era has become clear. Unfortunately, the news media are misinforming the public about what it means, making it easier in the future for Republicans to pull the same swindle they’ve been pulling for years.
The last few days have seen a spate of stories explaining how the GOP has supposedly abandoned its traditional budget-hawk ways, embracing huge deficits in an about-face from its former principled stand against fiscal irresponsibility. A headline in the New York Times reads: “Republicans Learn to Love Deficit Spending They Once Loathed,” while CNBC says: “Back in full control of the levers of government, the party that long espoused fiscal prudence is paving the way for substantial new federal spending that — combined with Republicans’ sweeping tax cut — is projected to send America’s deficit to record highs.” And from The Post: “Eliminating the budget deficit over 10 years has been a North Star for the Republican Party for several decades.”
The problem with all these reports is that they treat what’s happening right now as a change from past practice. In fact, this is not only perfectly consistent with past practice, but is exactly what liberals were predicting Republicans would do as soon as they had the opportunity. It isn’t a surprise. It isn’t a reversal. It’s what Republicans always do.
Let’s break it down:
- When a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans claim to be terribly concerned about deficits, using all kinds of apocalyptic language about the nightmarish future we’re leaving to our children. This is a technique they use to extract cuts in domestic programs that they don’t like anyway.
- The moment a Republican president takes office, most Republicans immediately stop pretending to be concerned about the deficit, arguing that we should just pass their priorities — tax cuts, the occasional war — with no attempt whatsoever to pay for them.
It’s not hard to understand. How many times do they have to repeat this pattern before we stop acting as though Republicans have any genuine concern about the deficit?
I want to reemphasize the point about them demanding cuts in programs they don’t like anyway, because it’s crucial. When you see House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) say we have no choice but to make deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he isn’t proposing that because he cares about deficits. He doesn’t. He wants to destroy those programs because he has a philosophical objection to the safety net.
In December, the president signed into law a measure providing for $700 billion in spending on the military this year. How many Republicans said that was too much money? None. And the reason is simple: They like military spending, so they don’t care what it costs. They don’t like spending on social programs, but they know the public does, so they shake their heads and say with regret that we just can’t afford them.
When you take Republican claims at face value and ignore the history of the last four decades or so, you are only helping them perpetuate their scam. But even if you are so generous that you don’t want to question their motives, at the very least you can acknowledge this irrefutable reality: The deficit goes up when there’s a Republican president, and goes down when there’s a Democratic president.
Here’s a chart illustrating that point with data from the White House budget’s historical tables. It shows the increase in the deficit between the first year of each president’s term and the first year of the succeeding president’s term, measured in constant (2009) dollars:
One of the maddening features of the debate over deficits is that while Republicans get all the credit for being “the party of fiscal discipline,” in fact the Democrats are the only ones who take the deficit seriously. You will recall that President Bill Clinton proclaimed “The era of big government is over” because, like other Democrats, he accepted the premise that bringing down government spending and deficits are inherently desirable things to do. When Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama, they included a range of new taxes because they wanted to make sure every cent of new health care spending was paid for.
Republicans, by contrast, often don’t bother to pay for anything. Even those few GOP members like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) who are taking a supposedly principled stand against the new budget agreement on the grounds that it will increase the deficit just voted for a tax cut that will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion.
There is a strong case to be made that we should not worry about deficits at all, but that is a topic for another day. What we have to remember is that the deficit will increase significantly for the time Trump is the president. And then as soon as the next Democrat takes office, Republicans will once again cry that debt threatens to destroy America and that if we don’t immediately slash spending, we will be plunged into a dystopian nightmare of starvation and despair.
Time and again on this topic, the Republicans have proven they are operating in absolute bad faith. If the knowledge of that fact does not inform your understanding of everything they say about spending and deficits, you are a partner in their con.