Opinion

Opinion: Meet the Deficit Doves

Deficit hawks soar like a rock

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., once could be counted among the GOP’s deficit hawks. Has he become a different kind of bird? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Do you remember the deficit hawks of the last decade, that breed of budget cutter so single-minded and focused on reducing, rather than growing, government debts and deficits that you knew what they were going to say before they said it?

Military spending needed a pay-for. Medicare Part D? Too expensive. For every legislative idea their congressional colleagues cooked up to solve a problem, the deficit hawks rightly pointed out that spending money the country doesn’t have is itself a problem, especially without a plan to reduce spending in the out years.

The hawks were like seat belts or a bicycle helmet — they took the fun out of some things, but at the end of the day, they kept us all safer.

Chicken hawks? 

Most notably, there was then-Rep. Paul Ryan, the rising young Wisconsin congressman whose affection for budgets and dynamic scores made him an eventual shoo-in for the House Budget Committee, where he could, in theory, lead a Republican revolution to scale back the federal government, and in turn the federal deficit.

Time and again before he became Speaker, Ryan released his “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal, which slashed federal outlays, even those that were broadly popular. “The real problem is the fact that we spend way more money than we take in,” Ryan said in a characteristic 2011 floor speech. “We have to address that.”

An even more aggressive deficit hawk was then-Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who was so committed at the time to cutting federal spending that he often opposed, and even spoke out against, President George W. Bush’s administration, which ballooned federal deficits with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the Medicare Part D legislation, which Pence voted against. As the head of the Republican Study Committee, Pence became a hero to conservative activists as they drifted away from Bush and then actively fought against President Barack Obama.

At the 9/12 March on Washington in 2010, one of the earliest and loudest protests against the Obama administration, Pence spoke out specifically against what he called runaway federal spending. “We do not consent to runaway federal spending by either political party,” Pence told cheering activists. “We demand an end to the borrowing and the spending and the bailouts once and for all!”

The tea party movement, animated in large part by conservative calls for a smaller, leaner government and reduced federal spending, swept Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill in 2010 and swept in dozens of Republicans pledging fiscal discipline. One of the most vocal neo-hawks on the scene was Rep. Mick Mulvaney, the South Carolina Republican who defeated the sitting Budget Committee chairman, Democratic veteran Rep. John M. Spratt Jr.

Mulvaney’s pitch for election boiled fiscal arguments down to kitchen table issues. If voters have to balance their checkbooks, why shouldn’t Chairman Spratt and the House Democrats? Shortly after arriving in the House, Mulvaney drafted the “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan, which became the conservatives’ most aggressive proposal to get the federal budget quickly back in the black.

When President-elect Trump tapped Mulvaney to head up the Office of Management and Budget, Roll Call named Mulvaney an “anti-deficit crusader.” The Trump transition team praised his “strong voice in Congress for reining in out-of-control spending, fighting government waste and enacting tax policies that will allow working Americans to thrive,” while Mulvaney predicted in his announcement that the Trump administration would “restore budgetary and fiscal sanity back in Washington.”

‘King of debt’

Even candidate Donald Trump, who in May of 2016 declared himself “the king of debt” in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, had changed his tune by September 2016 as the GOP nominee, telling The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt. I think I could do it fairly quickly. I would say over a period of eight years.”

One year into the Trump administration, with the GOP’s dream team of deficit hawks at the controls of every lever of the federal government, the Republicans have somehow spent the last four days exploding the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars.

On Friday, Congress agreed to a two-year spending framework that calls for increases in defense and domestic spending of roughly $300 billion, with the federal deficit expected to jump to a historic $1.2 trillion in 2019.

On Monday, Trump unveiled his own $4.4 trillion budget blueprint, which Mulvaney shopped on the Sunday shows. Among the highlights, the Trump budget does not even pretend to balance the federal budget within the 10-year time frame, as most GOP budgets at least aspire to do.

Watch: Trump’s Budget Request Won’t End the Cycle of Crisis Budgeting

It does, however, add $7 trillion to the deficit and includes an infrastructure proposal for $200 billion in federal spending as a part of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that would have state and local governments, along with private interests, making up the difference. Since state and local governments are already pressed for cash, they would, of course, likely have to borrow the money themselves to come up with their share and make the idea a reality.

Borrowing, buying, busting budgets. It’s almost like the Democrats are in charge, but without the feel-good promises Democrats at least offer when they spend money we don’t have only to pass on the cost to Americans, whose own children will eventually end up not only paying the bills, but paying to service the interest on the debts they inherit from today’s leaders.

When Mulvaney was asked on “Face the Nation” Sunday whether he would have voted for the plan when he was a member of Congress, he answered with surprising candor.

“Oh, probably not. But keep in mind I’m not Congressman Mick Mulvaney anymore.”

No kidding. But if you see him, Director Mulvaney, could you please tell him we’re looking for him? America needed the deficit hawks when we had them, and we need them again today. Unfortunately, once the hawks got into power, it turned out they were all really doves. Who is going to fight for budget sanity now that they’re gone? 

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