Coverage of hurricane relief efforts perpetuates the conservative canard that congressional Republicans are genuinely concerned about budget deficits. A recent story in the New York Times (“White House Requests More Disaster Aid but Also Seeks Cuts as Deficits Rise,” November 17) restates that the longstanding argument that “Republican leaders [have] made fiscal rectitude a central organizing principle.”
But the conservative commitment to reducing deficits has been more of a campaign slogan than a governing principle. Attacks on federal spending since Ronald Reagan’s budgets have been thinly veiled strategies for undercutting domestic policies. As historians have demonstrated, the demand for deficit reduction is the wolf’s clothing in which conservative cultural values have long masqueraded. Little wonder so few Republicans are expressing deficit angst about the $1.5 trillion hole their proposed tax cut will create over the next decade, not to mention the following decade (which is conveniently excluded from cost projections).
The tax and spending agendas of President Trump and the Republican-led Congress follow a well-worn path of skyrocketing deficits notwithstanding frequent protestations of concern about overspending. Historically, the deficit rose more under Presidents Reagan and the two Bushes than under Clinton or Obama largely as a result of unpaid for tax cuts, exploding military spending and a refusal to reign in entitlements. Clinton and Obama were left the task of raising taxes to reduce the deficit holes dug by their anti-deficit predecessors (although George H.W. Bush’s later acquiescence to raising taxes despite a pledge not to do so fatally wounded his presidency.) When Democrats imposed a “pay as you go” requirement for new mandatory spending or tax cuts in the 1990s, the result was the first balanced budget in two decades. Once in the majority, however, Republicans rescinded the pay-for mandate for taxes, and then rescinded “pay as you go” altogether, leading to mushrooming deficits.
None of this comes as a real surprise to Republican leaders who were well aware of their duplicity. No less a deficit slouch than Dick Cheney admitted, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Even those who designed the supply side scheme have confessed their theory was ridiculous. “You’re kidding yourself if you think cutting taxes is really cutting taxes,” confessed David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan. “We’re simply … and immorally putting huge debt burdens on future generations and that is just wrong.” And Bruce Bartlett, who crafted the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp, has admitted that tax cuts do not really pay for themselves. “It’s not true,” Bartlett said, “it’s nonsense, it’s BS.”
The real goal behind Republican deficit concern has been to create a rationale to do indirectly what they know voters will not sanction: direct cutbacks to domestic programs from education to economic development to environmental protection. “When a program is too popular to attack directly, like Medicare or Social Security,” former Republican Budget Committee staff Mike Lofgren acknowledged in 2011, “they prefer to undermine it by feigning an agonized concern about the deficit [that is] largely fictitious.”
This strategy explains the skepticism among Democrats in Congress that greeted the opposition of deficit hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz who demanded spending cuts to offset emergency aid for the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged East Coast. Cruz was echoing the concerns raised following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when then-Rep. Mike Pence admonished his House colleagues to “figure out how we’re going to pay for” the emergency aid, warning that “Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren.” (Now Vice President and facing hundreds of billions in disaster costs, Pence hasn’t said a word about requiring offsets.)
Indeed, even when Congress was providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the financial services industry in 2008 to stave off total economic collapse, GOP Sen. Judd Gregg privately proposed cutting domestic spending to offset any costs not repaid by the Wall Street firms.
The cornerstone of modern conservatism is not the fiscal prudence that motivated earlier generations, but the fierce reassertion of traditional cultural norms that have been challenged not only by Democrats but by many independents and Republicans as well. “All the foundations had been pulled out” of a country long governed by white, Christian, conservative men, noted Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America, and contemporary hard-line grassroots conservatism and nativism is the result. That movement is driven by evangelical hardliners for whom the deficit is little more than a convenient foil, easily and frequently discarded in pursuit of other policy objectives.