The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why did the GOP vote for a budget-busting spending bill? Because voters don’t seem to care.

In this image from video from Senate Television, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks on the floor of the Senate on Feb. 8, ahead of a vote on a budget bill that increased spending dramatically. (AP)

More than 70 percent of Republicans in the House and Senate happily voted for the huge bipartisan budget compromise, despite years of preaching the gospel of small government and lowering federal spending.

The deal boosted federal agency budgets more than $300 billion, pumped $91 billion into states hit by natural disasters and, for good measure, suspended the limit on the national debt well past this year’s midterm elections. To many observers it was a breathtaking contradiction, with some suggesting there would be political consequences for their profligate spending and abandonment of what used to be a core principle.

“When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech in which he also promised to delay a budget vote long enough to cause a brief government shutdown. “The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.”

Nighthawks: Lawmakers drift through a surreal overnight shutdown drama

Why would any party risk becoming such an easy target this close to an election in which they are already running into a strong head wind?

The answer is simple: Voter concern over surging deficits is at its lowest level in nearly a generation.

Just 48 percent of voters said reducing the budget deficit should be a “top priority,” according to last month’s Pew Research Center study. That does not rank among the 10 most important issues, trailing addressing race relations (52 percent), protecting the environment (62 percent) and improving education (72 percent), among other issues.

And it’s a dramatic drop from five years earlier, when 72 percent believed deficits were a top priority. It also represents the lowest share of Americans concerned about deficits since the months just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Other than that moment in modern history, you have to go back to the late 1990s to find a time when voters expressed such little concern about deficits, but that was when a surging economy led to annual surpluses and an effort at paying down the debt.

Now, deficits are surging again. After falling below the $500 billion mark in 2015, the deficit is projected to top $1 trillion in the next few years.

Yet voters in both parties have simply discounted the issue. Forty-one percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans consider cutting the deficit a top priority, both declines of more than 10 percentage points since the start of President Obama’s second term in the White House.

In this environment, supporting the budget-busting deal actually became an easy political vote — despite the inherent ideological contradictions.

Indeed, Republicans are being coached to focus on selling their $1.5 trillion tax cuts ahead of the November elections because they believe voters care overwhelmingly about their own wages.

“This also means that the success of the recently passed tax reform bill will be evaluated by the same standard, with the personal impact being the most important metric,” David Winston and Myra Miller, co-founders of the Winston Group, a Republican research firm, wrote in a late January memo sent to GOP lawmakers and strategists.

They cited a poll that asked voters to name the most important measure of the economy, and 59 percent said “personal economic issues like income, wages and cost of living.” Next was economic figures such as “growth rate, inflation, interest rates,” but only 18 percent cited that as their top measure.

“This does not mean that these other economic measurements are unimportant in how people evaluate the economy,” Winston and Miller wrote. “But the ultimate metric will be their personal situation.”

House Republicans are unusually united that the shutdown is Democrats’ fault

This is why, listening to Democrats attack the GOP tax plan, there is very little talk of how Republicans are blowing a hole in the deficit. They know voters have a blasé attitude about the national debt, now more than $20 trillion.

Instead, Democrats are doing what Winston and Miller are urging Republicans to do, zeroing in on how the tax bill affects the middle and working class. They accuse Republicans and President Trump of crafting a plan that provides only brief, small relief to the vast majority of Americans while giving away permanent, multibillion-dollar benefits to corporations and the wealthy.

“He told me he wouldn’t support tax reform that benefited the very rich at the expense of the little guy,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said of her discussions last year with Trump.

The debt and deficit issue might be best understood as something that voters almost universally agree is a bad thing — but that very few consider in shaping their vote.

It’s akin to the federal minimum wage. Ask voters if the minimum wage should be raised from $7.25 an hour, and an overwhelming majority say yes. Yet the minimum wage never ranks as a top issue that determines how voters select their candidates.

Even in 2010, as the tea party movement formed as a reaction to Obama’s stimulus plan and the Affordable Care Act, it’s not entirely clear how important government spending and deficits were in a midterm election that handed Republicans the House majority.

In 2010 exit polling among House of Representatives voters, about as many (34 percent) said the roughly $800 billion economic stimulus of 2009 hurt the economy as those who said it helped the economy (32 percent). But a similar 31 percent said it made no difference, so more than 60 percent of voters were unfazed by that big spending plan.

Voters were also asked what should be the top priority for Congress: cutting the deficit, cutting taxes or spending more to create jobs. Four in 10, or 40 percent, said cutting the deficit should be the highest priority. But over half of voters, combined, wanted to either cut taxes (18 percent) or spend more to create jobs (37 percent) — both policy positions that would bust the deficit.

In his speech, Paul said he wanted to force Republicans to “answer people at home” about their hypocrisy: “How come you were against President Obama’s deficits, and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?”

The answer is they learned that people at home don’t care all that much.

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