Congress is on the brink of approving a government spending bill that does precisely what Republicans on Capitol Hill and President Trump always described as a huge mistake: It will increase spending while not also increasing revenue, meaning that the federal budget deficit will widen. This bill is on top of the tax bill passed last December, of course; that legislation by itself is projected to add at least $1 trillion to the federal debt over the next decade.
If passed — which isn’t a sure thing — the measure would probably be signed into law by the guy who once tweeted this:
That was then.
It’s true that, starting in about the third quarter of 2008, the government started to accrue debt at a much faster clip than it had in the past.
That was largely a function of spending meant to address the Great Recession, which was devastating American employment and incomes. But it also meant that Republicans — newly out of power in January 2009 — had a cudgel that could be used as a point of criticism against then-President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress. The debt was one of the main leverage points in the 2010 midterms, brought to a boil by the tea party movement. As the 2012 campaign heated up, the budget deficit and federal debt became a common point of criticism against Obama.
But it wasn’t only politicians and political actors who were talking frequently about the deficit. Cable news programs were as well. Using data from the Internet Archive’s collection of television captions, it’s clear that the deficit was a much bigger subject of conversation through 2013 (and into 2014) than it would be thereafter. Fox News, as one might expect, talked about it a lot — but so did CNN and MSNBC.
The same holds for discussion of the federal debt. Business-focused networks Bloomberg and Fox Business mentioned the subject fairly consistently. Other national cable networks, though, were much more likely to talk about the debt until around the time of the government shutdown in 2013.
If we look at the percentage of sentences including each term on each network as an annual average, the pattern is easily discernible. Networks talked a bit more about the debt in 2017, but far less than they did in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
It is fair to ask why this happened. One reason is that the increase in the debt has become background noise over the past few years, a consistent, almost-predictable upward trend. Another reason is that the number of high-profile fights over the federal budget has declined a bit from the time before 2014.
A central reason, of course, is that Republicans took control of both branches of Congress in 2015 and the presidency in 2017. As the party in charge of the government, complaining about government spending naturally becomes less of a priority, however at odds it might be with recent history. Without one party pushing hard on the subject, news networks clearly included it in their coverage less often.
The net result? Republican legislators passing multiple bills that exacerbate something that they excoriated incessantly as a critical, existential problem when Democrats controlled the government.