Last week, just before a colossal budget deal was approved, Senator Rand Paul (R – KY) stood on the Senate floor warning of a “day of reckoning.” It was a strange and elliptical speech for the libertarian ideologue — a near-Hollywood portrayal of a clichéd lone preacher lamenting a world gone mad — lashing out at his colleagues, foretelling the collapse of the dollar, reminiscing bitterly about a time when fiscal responsibility was more a daily virtue than an election sound bite.
Drawing Rand’s ire was a budget agreement that will increase spending caps by nearly $300 billion over two years and add $7 trillion to the already-enormous national debt within a decade. The debt currently stands at over $20 trillion.
“I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” he said, open-palmed and exasperated.
These were curious words for a Senator who just last month voted for a tax bill that tacked on $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
Then again, these are curious times — an era when the historical party of financial prudence has rallied around a president who once dubbed himself “The King of Debt.” Many of the same representatives who voted for this budget deal, less than a decade ago decried national debt as the biggest crisis of our time — spinning it as a moral dilemma and a national security disaster, and invoking our children’s future in the debate over financial sanity.
It seems like only yesterday when the figure stood at a comparatively paltry $10.5 billion. That was the number inherited by Barack Obama after it ballooned during the post-9/11 George W. Bush years. By the end of his second term, Obama roughly doubled that number.
Back then, fear of national debt and disgust over Obama’s “loose purse strings” was so visceral that it birthed the Tea Party — a grassroots movement of deficit hawks influential enough to fracture the Republican Party, elect dozens of representatives to state and federal legislatures, and make septuagenarian Senator Ron Paul a bewildering household celebrity for a period — a conspiracy theory-prone libertarian the movement dubbed as their “intellectual godfather.”
Who better these days than Paul’s son Rand to succinctly pose the question facing our national politics?
“If you were against President Obama’s deficits, and now you’re for the Republican deficits,” Paul questioned his colleagues last week, “isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?”
That’s exactly right, Senator Paul.
However, perhaps the debt and deficit spending only matter when Democrats are in control, or maybe the fiscal conservatives and hardliners actually believe that the U.S. economy will show 3 percent growth, as President Trump’s new budget proposal assumes — a projection that many economists feel falls somewhere within the range of optimism and Kool-Aid drinking.
As the death bells tolled for the Tea Party, the few remaining Congressional deficit hawks were left to lament this radical change to awaiting media and frustrated constituents.
“The swamp won and the American taxpayer lost,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Representative Mark Meadow (R – NC) told CBS News.
Retiring Representative Jeb Hensarling (R – TX) said in a statement, “With the passage of this spending package, I fear Republicans have ceded our moral authority to lead our nation away from eventual national insolvency.”
Complicating this issue is the fact that if our politicians aren’t fretting about the national debt, it seems that the American public cares even less. According to the Pew Research Center, only 48% of polled Americans said reducing the federal deficit is a top priority — a major slide from a decade ago. In fact, the January poll recorded that reducing the federal deficit ranked 14 out of a possible 19 issues among voters. Further, economic issues, including the national debt, aren’t a major influencer among Trump’s base. With Republicans already in a precarious situation as midterms near, there’s very little Capitol Hill concern about adding to the debt if it impedes other voter-friendly issues.
It seems that the “moral authority” behind fiscal stewardship hinges on public opinion and whether the current president is wearing hometown colors. In the schizoid game of politics, the morality angle will not go away — it will simply pass on to Democrats, for their benefit. The amnesiac American public will still hear about the runaway debt crisis and fiscal responsibility, except the indicted parties will now be Republicans.
To make matters worse, there is no doubt that the mounting debt and deficit spending will be exploited in an ideological war to drastically alter the social safety net in America. For many Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R – WI), it certainly seems that debt and deficits can be accepted as a necessary evil if it coincides with philosophical victories.
The proposed budget recently released by the White House closely mirrors the budget plans penned by Ryan (R – WI) when he was House Budget Committee Chair. Along with last year’s tax cuts, it’s a veritable one-two punch against the lower and middle classes.
Expenditures vary from critically necessary to outright confounding. Washington’s “war dogs” will undoubtedly be the biggest beneficiary. The armed forces will see a major financial boost. While some defense increases are justified, Washington’s ceaseless infatuation with pricy, extravagant, and often ill-fated weapons and military toys will continue to be flush with funding. An additional $69 billion will be allocated to continuing to finance the ongoing wars that America is fighting. Possibly most disturbing, Trump plans to “modernize the nuclear arsenal” at a cost of over $1 trillion.
Non-military funding, which was starved throughout the Obama years, also receives an increase. Although this was touted as a victory by Democratic leadership, it’s more a sign of their chronic poor negotiation skills, especially when considering that recent non-defense spending relative to the economy, at 3.1 percent, is the lowest it’s been since 1961.
This increase will do little to stop the accelerating deficits already plaguing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending. Trump’s budget proposal, guided by Ryan’s libertarian hand, includes massive cuts to America’s social safety net.
To say it plainly: this has been Paul Ryan’s long-term goal all along. He will use rising deficits and crippling national debt to justify major entitlement reform.
The budget proposal — which will surely see major changes by its final form — slashes healthcare, college grants and loans, food and housing assistance, and consumer protections. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would be starved. A $72 billion cut for Social Security Disability Insurance would take place, SNAP (food stamps) would be throttled, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program would be totally eliminated. As promised, there would be major cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and the National Science Foundation.
Even the administration’s infrastructure plan, a major cog in the Trump campaign’s MAGA promises, is “a bait and switch that would cut federal support for infrastructure over the long term…[and] shift costs to states, cities, and individuals,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Few certainties exist concerning the future of our national debt. We know that Washington’s spendthrift political leaders will continue to spend, that few fiscally conservative voices will continue to scream into the void and that the hyperbole and hypocrisy forever surrounding this issue isn’t going anywhere.