After years of hectoring about the budget deficit and even shutting down the government over the principle, what did Republicans do upon taking total control this month? Agree to explode the debt.
Adam Smith has been around Congress a long time now, and so has learned to watch his words. Not so much anymore.
“This is a complete corporate takeover of America,” the Democratic congressman from Bellevue told me the other day.
Though just 51 years old, Smith suddenly is the longest-serving member from Washington state in the U.S. House (with Seattle’s Jim McDermott now retired.) With 20 years in Congress, Smith is second only to Sen. Patty Murray in political longevity from this state.
So he’s seen a lot — from impeachment to war to the tea-party revolution that seems to have permanently mired him in the minority.
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But even he says it’s been jolting this week to watch Republicans, who hectored everyone for years about fiscal rectitude, fire out the gate with a budget framework that bloats the national debt by $9.7 trillion over the next 10 years.
The plan, which is a vehicle to repeal Obamacare, would double the government’s annual deficits from $540 billion for this fiscal year to more than $1 trillion by 2026.
What happened to the tea- party chestnut that the nation must live within its means? When Obama runs up a half-trillion deficit he’s a traitor. But a full trillion’s OK now?
“The tea party never really cared about the deficit, as we’re now seeing,” Smith says.
Smith says he’s never seen the Capitol so “drunk on power.” When Obama and the Democrats swept into the majority in 2008, the nation’s economy was collapsing so it was a more somber time by comparison.
Right after the November 2016 election, Smith went back to the Capitol and found most Republicans he knows in a state of shock. Many Republicans in Congress had felt Donald Trump was a narcissistic blowhard who would probably lose. So, according to Smith, they had kept a psychic distance.
After Thanksgiving, though, Smith said Republicans had switched to acting “giddy.”
“I think it dawned on them that they were completely and totally in charge,” he said.
The tensions that naturally weigh on any governing majority are only now starting to come into view.
Trump is going to create fault lines in countless areas, from his business conflicts to his daily tweetstorms. But one flash point is bound to be the debt.
Trump campaigned for huge increases in military spending along with massive tax cuts that together would add at least $6 trillion more to the debt (that’s on top of the $9.7 trillion mentioned above.) Three-fourths of the tax cuts are corporate.
Said Bob Bixby, head of the balanced-budget group the Concord Coalition, to the Fiscal Times: “The tension we are seeing now is whether they can accommodate big spending plans and a big tax cut and still go to their constituents with a straight face and say they’re worried about the debt.”
So old-fashioned, that concern about “a straight face.” Who cares about having a straight face in politics anymore?
Only one Republican senator, out of 52, made a peep about the head-snapping hypocrisy of Republicans’ launching a debt explosion on Week One (Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky).
Smith said there are budget hawks in the House who are concerned. But “my sense is that any true budget hawks out there are going to get rolled.”
Smith has been one of the few Democrats willing to criticize his own party on the issue. (A few years back, he derided Obama’s budgets to me as “bad math.”) But Republicans have shot straight to “2+2 = 9.”
“They promised tax cuts, a bigger military plus a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending,” Smith said, recounting Trump’s basic plan. “Plus repealing Obamacare adds to the deficit.”
Yet all that crazy math didn’t hurt them. In fact it ought to be abundantly clear at this point that anybody who really does care about the deficit and debt is a political sucker. A noble one, maybe. But a sucker.
“The reality of politics today is you don’t go out in a campaign and tell people what taxes you’re going to raise and what programs you’re going to cut,” Smith said. “You can’t get elected in this country if you’re honest about it, like Walter Mondale.”
Information in this article was corrected January 11, 2017. The original version incorrectly stated Republicans have control of the House, Senate and presidency for the first time since 1928. The party also had total control during part of the George W. Bush administration.