The recurring shutdown and short-term-funding debates have let Democrats and Republicans run through debate points about immigration and their views of the president. But lost in an argument that is grounded in spending is the spending itself: the grim outlook of our nation’s finances. It is telling that the State of the Union address, which celebrated big government but did not even mention debt or the ongoing deficits, was widely popular.
Government shutdowns have become trial runs for would-be star politicians and tend to be popular with the parties’ activist bases. Ted Cruz raised his profile by orchestrating the 2013 shutdown even though it failed to put a dent in Obamacare. (Today he claims to have “consistently opposed shutdowns.”) And after a weekend-long shutdown this year, activist Democrats protested in front of Chuck Schumer’s home because the event had ended too soon. Kamala Harris, who like Ted Cruz in 2013 is eyeing the next general election, has committed to backing a shutdown this week if the spending deal doesn’t contain a fix for the “Dreamers.”
It is easy to blame Democrats for their shutdown theatrics, but these would have been harder to pull off if the congressional GOP had opened the year by showing an interest in the budget or had demonstrated a legislative agenda beyond a vague desire for something on infrastructure. When that infrastructure idea began to materialize, it was as a trillion-plus-dollar boondoggle.
The Treasury predicts about $1 trillion in borrowing per year in 2018, 2019, and 2020; this is roughly double the borrowing last year. The increase is driven to some extent by reduced tax revenues following the GOP’s recent tax reforms. While defenders of the tax bill were not wrong in saying that reduced revenues could be offset by shrinking government spending, it seems, as skeptics argued at the time, that those cuts are unlikely to come about. In fact, across the board, the preference seems to be for more spending. The national debt is already over $20.5 trillion, a situation that rightly infuriated conservatives during the Obama years.
The House put out a bizarre spending bill that funds most of the government through March 23 yet features high defense spending for a full year. (Let us note that a Pentagon agency recently lost over $800 million, according to a recent audit.) All indications are that the bill will fail — but that makes it more, not less, damning, because such legislation shows the party’s priorities absent political limitations.
Ambitious Democrats’ shutdown hopes may not be realized this time around, though, as Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell recently convened to work on a clean two-year budget deal. It is not yet clear what this bill will contain, but it will likely be introduced in the form of an amendment to the House’s stopgap legislation. This is welcome, but it does not clean up the underlying fiscal situation.
I doubt that congressional Republicans want to jump in on all of the administration’s new and costly ideas, but they don’t seem keen on making structural reforms to the costly programs that are already in place. The administration’s infrastructure plan, to be revealed in detail on Monday, is likely to exacerbate this problem, as Trump is of one mind with the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic party when it comes to infrastructure and manufacturing. Such bipartisan boondoggles tend to be the most difficult to avert.
Many self-described “fiscal conservatives” voted for the tax bill despite the fact that it would dramatically reduce revenues at a time when we’re facing a massive national debt. To show that they are serious about fiscal responsibility, they should take a stand on spending before the problem gets even worse. The nation’s finances may depend on it.