Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) came out with a powerful statement condemning the current tax bill, in particular, the attempt to combine tax cuts with health-care “reform” (repeal of the individual mandate). He urged Congress to look at the needs of “the middle class and the working poor,” a swipe at the bill that is larded up with tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Kasich continued: “It’s also critical to avoid an explosion in the debt which would be counterproductive to economic growth.” He added that “mixing health-care reform into a tax bill should be a nonstarter.” As to the latter point, it’s not clear why Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who opposed the health-care bill are seemingly content to use the tax bill as a vehicle to destabilize the Obamacare exchanges.
What is remarkable is that Kasich is out there by himself, a lonely voice that demands fiscal responsibility, directing economic help to those who need it and some semblance of good governance (e.g. regular order). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used to sound similar themes, but it is not at all certain he will stand up to his party on taxes. (That would be a shame if he diminished his legacy as a brave defender of bipartisanship and regular order.)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) used to care about debt — when a Democrat was in office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used to be a defender of Senate tradition — until Republicans won the White House and majorities in both houses. Now, however, the Trump GOP is about rewarding rich friends (not about its populist campaign message), jamming the other side and shoving the debt onto future generations. As Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, who authored a bipartisan plan to control the debt in the Obama administration, point out:
[The tax bill] reads as if it were developed for a country whose debt problems have been solved, when in reality debt is the highest it has ever been other than around World War II.
When this tax reform discussion started, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for revenue-neutral tax reform. While ultimately more revenue is needed, deficit neutrality is likely the best that can be expected in the current political environment.
Yet Congress abandoned even this minimum standard of fiscal responsibility and decided to proceed with a $1.5 trillion tax cut instead.
So, are Simpson and Kasich the only fiscal conservatives and procedural sticklers left? It sometimes seems so.
Kasich was around in an era when Congress produced balanced budgets. Now, as Robert E. Rubin (no relation) points out, the name of the game is devising tricks like the “trigger” to avoid the appearance of fiscal recklessness. (“[N]o one should be fooled. Rather than mitigating the impact of future revenue losses, it will likely prove a toothless tiger whose main function was to provide cover for deficit-increasing tax cuts. The policymakers of tomorrow almost certainly will let it fall by the wayside. The time to prevent the president and Congress from enacting misguided tax cuts that swell the debt is now.”)
Kasich was a middle-of-the-road conservative when he was in Congress in the 1990s. Now he sounds like he’s on another political planet, and he is. He’s the GOP of the past — the grownups who wanted capitalism to work for everyone, who cared about fiscal sobriety and the immorality of shoving debt onto the backs of future generations, and who worked across the aisle. I’m less optimistic than some conservatives about the GOP’s ability to recover its policy bearings — let alone, reestablish any moral standards for public conduct. Maybe Kasich’s time in politics will end with his term as Ohio governor — or maybe he needs to start or restart something approaching a grown-up, ethical party of the center right. We could use one about now.