Updated Apr 12, 2018 - Politics & Policy

How the GOP learned to stop worrying about deficits

Republicans have exploded the deficit since taking control of Washington, despite being the party that campaigned on reining in government spending — and is about to vote on a balanced-budget amendment in the House today. Yet, the party thinks tax reform was worth the gamble and doesn't expect to be punished for it at the polls.

Data: Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
Data: Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Between the lines: President Trump is livid about the recent spending bill, and could inspire some voters to channel his anger if he stays that way. But there's really no case to be made by Democrats that they'll rein in spending, leaving those concerned about debt and deficits without a champion.

Since Trump took office, Republicans have substantially decreased federal revenues and increased spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Monday that the annual deficit will now top $1 trillion by 2020, exceeding deficit spending compared to when President Obama left office.

  • The GOP can correctly say it fulfilled half of its fiscal promise – lowering taxes – with the tax law. However, it not only just oversaw the passage of a $1.3 trillion spending bill, but it also failed to accomplish any reform of entitlement programs.
"This administration likely – unless they change course rapidly – they're going to be known as the most fiscally irresponsible administration, or one of the most, in our country, ever.”
— Sen. Bob Corker

Context: The deficits under Trump still won't reach the heights that they did during Obama's first few years in office, right after the financial crisis, as the graphic shows.

What's next: The House will vote today on the balanced budget amendment, and a bill to scale back some of the spending included in the recent omnibus is being discussed, but few think either have a chance of becoming law.

  • “It’s all nothing but face-saving. Look, we’re in charge, we ought to develop a way to balance the budget," said Corker, who is retiring.

Why it matters, per the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's Marc Goldwein: "It's scary. We'll approach trillion-dollar deficits next year, and even under current law have debt approaching the size of the economy by ~2030. More realistically, debt will be well into uncharted waters by that time."

Yes, but: Few Republicans are concerned about payback. Rather, many are casting blame elsewhere while touting tax reform and enhanced defense funding.

  • "It’s a reminder of how often the CBO gets it wrong," said Sen. Pat Toomey on the tax law cost estimate component of Monday's report. But on the spending side, "That’s just math. And they're right about that, we’re spending way too much money.”
  • But, Toomey continued, "We can’t pass legislation in the Senate without Democrat votes, and they hold us up for more spending."
  • Some Republicans, as Sen. Roy Blunt pointed out, have the advantage of being able to brag to voters about their vote against the must-pass spending bill. "They sort of get the best of both worlds: ‘We increased defense spending, as we needed to, and since we were also spending a few other dollars' ... they didn’t vote for the bill.”

The bottom line, per Rep. David Schweikert, a member of the House Freedom Caucus: "We’ve both become the entitlement parties."

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