Budget Hawks During Tax Debate, Democrats Now Silent on Deficits

Democrats who howled about the debt during last year’s debate over tax cuts have stood silent over a comparably larger increase in red ink projected from a budget-busting spending plan that cleared Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump early Friday.

Many Democrats, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on down, opposed the budget deal because it omitted amnesty for young illegal immigrants — not that it would add to America’s staggering $20 trillion national debt.

Conservatives viewed the about-face with scorn but not shock.

“I don’t think that should be a surprise to anybody,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told LifeZette. “It’s consistent with Democrats’ history in Washington.”

That history was far from obvious during the debate over the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, however. Democrat after Democrat characterized the tax cuts as fiscally irresponsible and cited projections they would add more than $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Three erstwhile deficit hawks who led the charge — Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) — did not respond to inquiries from LifeZette to explain their support for the budget deal.

McCaskill, however, told USA Today that the additional spending was "small potatoes" compared to the tax cuts. During debate Thursday, Durbin lamented domestic funding cuts over the past decade: "Many people have said, 'Nobody'll notice.' Well, America noticed, as we cut back our investment in education and health care, and so many fundamentals."

Conservative critics see duplicity.

"Most politicians are very hypocritical," said Mark Meckler, president of the Tea Party group Citizens for Self-Governance. "It's almost a synonym. But the Democrats have risen to new levels of hypocrisy."

Busting the caps. The deal that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cooked up repeals spending caps imposed in 2011 on discretionary domestic and defense spending. Although Congress periodically raised those caps, the restraints did slow the growth of federal spending.

The spending bill adds roughly $300 billion over the next two years to defense and domestic programs, extends funding for a number of programs set to expire, and spends nearly $90 billion on disaster relief for states hit by hurricanes and wildfires last year.

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the libertarian-leaning advocacy group FreedomWorks, ripped Democrats for hypocrisy but did not spare Republicans, either.

"Look, the Republicans who vote for this deserve all the criticism in the world for betraying their promises to cut spending," he said. "That said, Democrats who did nothing but complain about the tax cuts adding to the debt don't care at all about adding to the debt with this spending."

The Congressional Budget Office forecast Thursday that the deficit would increase by nearly $24.3 billion from 2018 to 2022 under the deal. But Pye said the true cost is much bigger since the higher spending will set a new baseline for fiscal year 2020.

He estimated the 10-year cost would be about $1.5 trillion. That is roughly the official estimate of tax cuts and greater than the cost of tax cuts when factoring in increased economic activity that most economists expect the cuts to generate.

"This is a worst-case scenario from a Democratic Congress," Pye said. "It's unimaginable that it's happening under a Republican Congress and a Republican president."

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agreed that the true cost will balloon over the next decade.

"I think a trillion-and-a-half is the low end," he said.

True cost could be $2 trillion. Goldwein, whose organization opposed both the tax cuts and the budget deal, said the 10-year cost likely will be $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion. He said the true cost of the tax cuts also is much higher than the official projection because of provisions that expire on paper but almost certainly will be extended by Congress.

But the budget deal is at least comparable in cost, Goldwein said.

"I can't imagine anyone voting for this and calling themselves a deficit hawk," he said. "It's such a Christmas-tree piece of legislation. It's got something for everyone. It spends more than either party wanted to for defense and non-defense … We're going to be in a state of permanent trillion-dollar deficits."

Some progressives did express concern over the debt, but they mostly are outside of Congress.

The Progressive Policy Institute, for instance, endorsed funding increases for health care programs, disaster relief and other domestic programs. But Will Marshall, the group's president, wrote Thursday that Congress should pay for the spending with higher taxes.

"It's regrettable that Senate Democrats have made themselves complicit in the Republican raid on the U.S. Treasury," he wrote.

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In the Senate, debt warnings were few and far between, although Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) used procedural maneuvers to delay the vote until after midnight — triggering a government shutdown.

The Senate finally voted 73-26 to cut off debate, but not before Paul had given a long speech on the floor of the upper chamber. He blasted the GOP but called out his Democratic colleagues as well.

"They're not too concerned about the debt," he said. "Well, they are sometimes. They're concerned about the debt when it comes to taxes. Because they don't want people to keep more of their money.'

In the lower chamber, the House Freedom Caucus opposed the deal. Brooks, the Alabama representative — and a member of the caucus — told LifeZette that military funding increases favored by most conservatives are not worth it if they jeopardize the nation's long-term solvency.

But Brooks did not hold out much hope that he and other like-minded representatives could stop it.

"If past history is any guide, liberal Republicans will marry up and snuggle with Democrats," he said Thursday.

And just as Brooks said, early Friday morning, the House approved the deal. President Donald Trump then signed the measure into law.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at brendan.kirby@lifezette.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Last Modified: February 9, 2018, 11:52 am

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