On the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, Republicans awoke — if they had, indeed, ever gone to sleep — with a sense of elation they hadn’t felt in quite some time. Not only did they have both houses of Congress, against all odds they also had the presidency.
That elation wasn’t just a sense of winning a sports match, either. It meant real reform was coming to Washington. Obamacare could be dismantled and Americans could finally see real competition and transparency in health care. Onerous tax rates, particularly on corporations, would come down. And, perhaps most importantly, we’d finally see something resembling fiscal restraint.
In those two years, there were plenty of victories, mind you — but not as many as there should have been.
The judiciary has been the major triumph for the Trump administration, with two justices on the Supreme Court and a bevy of lower-court justices having been confirmed. Tax reform passed. In a sense, Obamacare has been somewhat neutered — the individual mandate, the linchpin of the program, has been excised — but there was never any agreement on a comprehensive, free-market replacement.
Those could be seen as the myriad disappointments of deliberative democracy. Inexcusable, however, has been the refusal of Congress to take any steps toward fiscal restraint. If anything, quite the opposite has happened — according to The Washington Post, in the first fiscal quarter of 2019, the federal deficit ballooned by a whopping 77 percent compared with the same quarter in 2018.
“The total deficit for the four-month period was $310 billion, Treasury said, up from $176 billion for the same period one year earlier,” The Post’s Damian Paletta reported Tuesday.
Lower tax receipts were part of the problem, according to Bloomberg; revenues fell 2 percent, or $1.1 trillion. Spending, however, rose 9 percent to $1.4 trillion.
Mind you, this is not the Democrats taking power. Pretty much everything here, sadly, was the result of a Republican Congress and a Republican president.
“When Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives during the Obama administration, lawmakers and White House officials embarked on a number of strained negotiations to try to reduce the gap between spending and tax revenue,” The Post reported. “During the Trump administration, there have not been any similar discussions, and President Trump has largely enacted an agenda of tax cuts and spending increases that had grown the deficit markedly.”
The Post gets half the problem right, and you can guess that it focuses on the other half as being responsible for the shortfalls.
The Post turned to former Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who used to chair the Senate Budget Committee, to make its point:
“It’s big tax cuts combined with big increases in spending when they already had big deficits,” Conrad told the newspaper. “So guess what, it’s craziness!”
The point of tax cuts to spur economic growth, of course, is that they go along with either fiscal restraint or spending cuts. The United States not being a paragon of fiscal restraint for generations now, the latter was the obvious complement. Yet, as The Post rightly pointed out, the GOP seemed perfectly happy to keep the spigot flowing. If anything, Republicans loosened the tap a bit more.
According to The Post, two of the chief culprits were defense outlays, which saw a 12 percent increase, and Medicare spending, which saw a 16 percent increase.
The military spending, unfortunately, was a necessary expenditure considering the state of our armed forces after the Obama administration. In its “2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” the Heritage Foundation “rated the U.S. military as ‘marginal; while rating both the Army and the Marine Corps as ‘weak.’”
The Medicare increase, however, highlights the one budgetary issue that the Republicans have steadfastly refused to touch: Entitlement reform. In 2019, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security will cost Americans $2.083 trillion. What did Congress do about this for two years? Nothing. There were always whispers that once whatever they were dealing with was finished, restructuring our insane entitlement spending was always just around the corner. It never was.
Now, Democrats control the House, where spending bills originate. They happen to be a bit more keen on “Medicare for all” than Medicare reform, in case you hadn’t noticed.
That also means market-based health care is off the table, too. Instead, we’re likely to be stuck with the half-toppled ruins of Obamacare for at least the next two years. As for spending cuts, the party that controls the House is also the party that’s debating whether to embrace the Green New Deal — a program that could cost up to $93 trillion if fully implemented, if early estimates are any indication. Without real leadership from Republicans, leadership that was lacking when they had power, our budgetary problems could just be beginning.
Those are the big-ticket items, of course, but the small examples of government waste will also likely go unaddressed. In Sen. Rand Paul’s yearly report on government waste this past December, the Kentucky Republican cited, among other things, a $874,503 grant to study the sexual habits of quails when they’re high on cocaine, $18 million spent on promoting Egyptian tourism, $2,488,153 for the National Institutes of Health to study daydreaming and $75,691 for the National Science Foundation to find out what happens when you train leaf blowers on lizards.
None of those are going to break the budget on their own, but it’s indicative of the problem at a micro level. At a macro level, we have two parties that can’t stop spending and only one that’ll admit it’s a problem.
By the way, the president is far from immune from criticism here. Trump came into office promising to be a master negotiator, but on the budget, this quality remains unrevealed. His biggest failure was the 2018 omnibus bill; in order to keep the government open, he signed a $1.3 trillion spending extravaganza which he said he was “disappointed” in and promised “never sign another bill like this again.” Well then, why sign it in the first place?
Now that the Democrats control the House, Trump has to step up to the plate. We don’t need to abandon tax cuts to restore fiscal responsibility. The first item of business, obviously, is to “never sign another bill like (that) again.” The Republicans still control the Senate and if the Democrats want anything more than gridlock, spending cuts and entitlement reform have to be on the table. If Congress refuses to do it — and they will — the president will need to play hardball. If there’s any way to energize the Republican base, it would be taking a chainsaw to the federal budget.
Trump could also use executive action to cut government waste. He did it in the first few months of his administration by issuing a memorandum telling federal agencies to make plans to reduce their workforces. In March of 2017, he signed an executive action ordering a “thorough examination of every executive department and agency” to discover “where money is being wasted (and) how services can be improved.”
The Hill speculated this could lead to significant job cuts within the federal government. That’s something Trump can still do.
Furthermore, it’s time for the GOP to take winning back the House seriously. If the Republicans retain the White House and flip the lower chamber in 2020, President Trump can follow through on some of his campaign promises that went unrealized when he had control of both houses. He could cut the wholly extraneous Department of Education, which will receive $71.5 billion this year. (There are a few other departments he could do away with too, at least in our opinion.) He could enact real entitlement reform. He could finally untangle the mess that is Obamacare.
The sad fact is, however, he had two years to do this already. So did the Republican Congress. Their failure, at least for now, has added significant tonnage to a debt bomb our youth will have to defuse.
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