The Enduring Lie of Republican 'Fiscal Responsibility'

I can’t help but wonder how it is that the Republican Party came to be known as the party of fiscal conservatism, which we are frequently told is synonymous with fiscal responsibility. At no point during my lifetime has the GOP exhibited anything close to a fiscally conservative or fiscally responsible approach to governing. The numbers speak for themselves. Under President Reagan, the federal deficit climbed from about $80 billion in 1981 to over $150 billion in 1989. By the time President George H.W. Bush left office in 1993, it had climbed to over $250 billion. Over the combined 12 years of the Reagan and Bush presidencies, the gross national debt increased by roughly $3 trillion. 

In his first term in office, President George W. Bush continued the Republican trend of pumping up both the deficit and debt. He transformed a 2001 surplus of more than $100 billion into a deficit of over $400 billion in 2004. Over the next few years, the deficit took a sizeable dip, hitting a five-year low of $160 billion in 2007. But then the wheels of the recession started to turn, pulling the deficit back up to more than $450 billion in 2008. In 2009, it grew to more than $1.4 trillion.

President Trump has done even less than his predecessors to address the national debt, which now stands at more than $22 trillion. That’s an astounding number, but it doesn’t seem to faze Republicans at all. 

Washington’s bipartisan propensity for kicking the can down the road routinely comes back to haunt us all. Throughout the course of the Bush presidency, Republican politicians routinely dismissed concerns about the rising costs of health care, culminating in a crisis of accessibility that set the stage for the passage of an Affordable Care Act that has been less effective than its supporters had hoped it would be. And on climate change, it’s plainly obvious that both parties’ short-sightedness has made the situation far worse than it would have been if we had started taking more meaningful steps to reduce carbon emissions in decades past. Unfortunately, we have a bad habit of prioritizing convenience over accountability, even if it means forcing our children and grandchildren to make much greater sacrifices than we would’ve had to make to resolve these types of problems early on.

Year after year, we continue to treat the government more like a wishing well than a real-world institution that’s bound to real-world rules, and it’s not going to work forever. Debt has consequences. The piper always comes calling. That’s just how it goes in the real world, and there’s no escaping it. 

Simply put, we need more money to pay off both the debt that we’ve already accumulated and the debt that’s coming down the pike. That conclusion, I believe, holds true regardless of which party’s goals we’re talking about pursuing. To achieve what Democrats want to achieve, we need more money to invest in the development of clean energy to help fight climate change. We need more money to invest in public schools that find themselves on the wrong end of a property tax formula that favors wealthier school districts over poorer ones. Want single-payer healthcare, or at least a public option? And perhaps free college, too? We’ll need more money for those as well. 

To achieve what Republicans want to achieve, we need more money to hire more border patrol agents and ensure they have the resources they need to maintain proper border security. Add that to the billions of dollars we’ll need for the proposed southern border wall. The elusive infrastructure spending bill that President Trump and the Democrats have been negotiating is sure to cost a pretty penny, as will the president’s new Space Force. And, of course, there’s always defense spending, which has gone up each of the past four years and, if the president gets his way, will go up again in fiscal year 2020.  

Where do Republicans expect us to find all this money? They don’t say. Democrats, as they always do, talk about raising taxes to increase revenue. President Trump does a lot of talking, too. In fact, he once said that he’d eliminate America’s debt within 8 years. Instead, the debt has continued to grow at a steady pace, and the fiscal watchdog group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently predicted that Trump’s contribution to the national debt could exceed $4 trillion

My progressive friends tell me I worry too much about this issue. I’m fairly confident that they’re wrong. In fiscal year 2018, the United States government shelled out more than $350 billion in interest payments on its debt. The way I see it, that’s more than $350 billion missed opportunities to improve border security, upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, provide better benefits to veterans, and expand programs designed to mitigate the effects of climate change. How do we justify this? How do we rationalize throwing away hundreds of billions of dollars year after year while teachers are reaching into their own pockets to pay for their students’ school supplies and low-income opioid addicts struggle to find treatment facilities that will take them?

Short-sighted thinking is endemic to partisan politics, and it isn’t a phenomenon that disproportionately compromises the judgment of either Democrats or Republicans. But Democrats don’t market themselves as the guardians of fiscal conservatism or advocate for fiscal restraint, nor do they expend much energy worrying about the debt or deficit. They want higher taxes and higher spending, and they’re not the least bit shy about that.  

Fiscal responsibility is supposed to be the GOP’s domain, the meat and potatoes of their ideological platform. Their reputation for being the ones we can trust to keep the country’s financial house in order has worked well for them, as evidenced by the fact that, when it comes to economic matters, Americans still trust Republicans more than Democrats. But this can’t go on forever. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have and expect everything to just work itself out. Sadly, that seems to be precisely what the GOP intends to do—or rather, it’s what they’ve been doing for decades, are continuing to do under President Trump, and will almost certainly continue to do long after Trump’s presidency comes to a close—consequences be damned. 

When those consequences materialize, GOP leaders will start spewing the same tired rhetoric they’ve been spewing for years, demanding that their children and grandchildren simply suck it up and assume the financial burdens left to them by their forefathers’ reckless habits. Then the party will fall out of power, regroup, come storming back under a fraudulent banner of fiscal responsibility, and the cycle will continue unabated—unless, of course, an ambitious, principled conservative with a backbone comes along to straighten the party out. But I’m not holding my breath. 

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