Carrington: GOP debt ceiling demand is (failed) past on repeat
Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
As much as American partisanship seems to be in a state of upheaval, familiar cycles continue to play out.
One “tale as old as time” currently on display concerns the truism that Republicans, lacking unified control of the elected branches, will adopt the mantle of fiscal restraint. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has demanded that any raising of the debt ceiling must include spending cuts. In fact, to secure his speakership, McCarthy agreed for the House Budget Committee to put forward an outline for balancing the federal budget within the next 10 years.
We’ve been here before. Following the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans last controlled only the House chamber, the GOP leveraged a debt ceiling increase to push for spending cuts. Before that, between 1995-1996, a Republican House and Senate majority pushed for balancing the national government’s budget through spending cuts. In neither case did the GOP achieve significant or lasting success. No “Grand Bargain” was struck in 2011, and the resulting sequestration agreement kicked the fiscal can down the seemingly indefinite road. Even when the national government balanced its budget during the latter half of Bill Clinton’s second term between 1998-2001, most of that success resulted from massive economic growth as opposed to disciplined fiscal restraint.
It’s not that the GOP hasn’t had a legitimate point over the last 30 years. It’s hard to dismiss a now 31.4 trillion-dollar debt as small potatoes. Such persistent, often gluttonous, overspending has wrought negative consequences and threatens greater ones in the future. It makes logical sense that we should maintain some reasonable relationship between the money the government takes in and what it spends.
So, why has the GOP failed in its generation-plus calls for fiscal restraint? Some accuse the GOP of hypocrisy. True, the GOP tends to make these calls when lacking total control of the legislative process. Both former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump enjoyed periods of unified control of the elected branches, yet both grew the national debt significantly. Neither took any notable steps toward curbing that growth. When the time came to act, the GOP went wobbly.
Hypocrisy doesn't tell the whole story, however — let alone the main one. The fact is, the policy of fiscal restraint is deeply unpopular. Yes, you can make an argument for balancing budgets and cutting bad spending. Abstractly, people will support cuts in governmental spending (such as the amorphous “waste” that McCarthy mentioned this past weekend).
When you start getting into what to cut, however, you immediately lose whatever tenuous majority may have existed. Ultimately, the “waste” that most might agree to cut is pretty small compared to overall federal expenditures. The items whose heavy trimming would genuinely move the ball — military spending and entitlements — are cemented and popular. Recall the “Mediscare” ads run against Speaker Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans in 1995-1996. Or recall the commercial in which a Paul Ryan-like figure literally pushed a grandmother off a cliff. Simply put, fiscal restraint has not worked as a governing principle because the public, when it comes to the necessary hard choices and trade-offs, simply doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it.
When given the choice between protecting the biggest parts of our large national government and balancing the books, they repeatedly choose the former. They’ll most likely do so again. And again. And again. That is until reality finally forces the hand of whatever administration has the unenviable task of being left holding the bag when Social Security goes belly-up or the debt becomes so glaringly untenable it leads to financial calamity. The late economist Herbert Stein had it right decades ago: If it can’t go on forever, it will stop.
Admittedly, this point is a hard pill for old-school fiscal conservatives, including myself, to swallow. But it’s the reality. House Republicans need to understand that and figure out how to make fiscal restraint truly popular. Or, they need a new governing philosophy that fits the public. McCarthy’s replay of the old hits won’t cut it.