The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Republicans should have learned (other than not to trust Trump)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) meet with reporters outside the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Republicans learned the hard way this week that the tactic of using the debt ceiling to extract further spending cuts is a losing one. And now, thanks to President Trump, they may lose it permanently.

For starters, as long as there are enough moderate Republicans and Democrats (in other words the Freedom Caucus is not a majority of the House) the tactic will not work. There will always be a majority willing to do the responsible thing, vote to raise the debt limit. Moreover, the president and Democrats figured the “tie it to the debt ceiling” game can go two ways. By tying Hurricane Harvey relief to the debt ceiling they managed to get a flock of conservative senators to vote for the debt ceiling. And to boot they slipped in a three-month continuing resolution to keep the government going.

It should be obvious that the debt ceiling game now works to disadvantage the Freedom Caucus. Next time it may, in fact, be the Dream Act that gets attached. Aside from the good governance reason not to go through this charade, and the obvious point that if they don’t want to raise the debt ceiling they shouldn’t vote for more debt-creating tax plans, they now would be better off letting the debt ceiling automatically rise.

A larger lesson was to be learned this week, if Republicans cared to pay attention. Given that we may be in a new weather era (let’s not revisit climate-change denial) that requires not only relief programs but also serious attention to infrastructure of coastal area cities, the current budgeting process is inherently dishonest. We wind up spending far more than the budget says because we have emergencies — regularly occurring ones that point to additional needs only the federal government can afford. Some argued that the states should pay more of their own way, especially in Texas which is a low tax state. If we are not willing to do that — looking at you, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas — then we should put sufficient funds in the budget and so we can access our real spending priorities and revenue needs.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Conservative lawmakers were reminded this week that now and then, no matter one’s philosophy, you need to spend money, maybe a lot of money, to help out the vulnerable. The idea that we should spend less each year until we arrive back in the pre-New Deal-sized government doesn’t comport with reality. And conservatives really aren’t willing to live with the consequences since they know their own states’ needs and haven’t the nerve to reduce the growth of entitlement programs.

Put differently, we do need government big enough to pay for real needs. You cannot continually cut revenue at a time you want more spending here and there and aren’t willing to touch entitlements. (And once again, tax cuts may be justified in a recession, for example, but they do not pay for themselves.) Furthermore, the notion that even a few-trillion-dollar tax cut over a decade has serious impact on a roughly $19 trillion annual economy is dubious.

You almost get the idea that the entire GOP economic philosophy is dependent on a never-ending stream of tax cuts for the rich. What else do they have, policy-wise? Their near exclusive dependence on tax cuts as the party’s economic message is unwise policy and bad politics. Instead of the endless search for more tax cuts for the rich why not roll out some actual conservative policy ideas that address today’s problems? If they want to promote self-sufficiency, work, life-long learning and job training, mobility (physical and economic), and innovation, then they need policies to match, including legal immigration reform, new trade deals and investment in infrastructure and human capital. But thinking about how to spend wisely and what policies to deploy requires serious study and compromise — two things that Republicans seem allergic to these days.