Republicans now ‘shocked, shocked’ that there’s a deficit
Republicans are channeling their inner Louis Renault, the corrupt police chief in “Casablanca” who, needing a pretense to close Rick’s Cafe, said he was “shocked, shocked” there was gambling going on, as the waiter slips him his winnings.
Since President Biden and the Democrats took control, more Republicans are “shocked, shocked” at big budget deficits. “We have an ever-growing deficit, an ever-growing debt and no apparent interest in taking the steps that are necessary to address it,” worries South Dakota’s John Thune, the third ranking Senate Republican. Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson is “shocked” that since he arrived in Washington in 2011 the national debt has almost doubled and “few in Congress seem to care.”
As Joe Biden would say, give me a break.
These were the same Republicans who accommodated Donald Trump most every step of the way as the federal deficit and national debt nearly doubled — before COVID-19. Sen. Johnson, a Trump loyalist, is right that the national debt has almost doubled in his ten years — but he fails to mention most of that occurred in the last four — with his enthusiastic support. For his part, Sen. Thune supported Trump more than 91 percent of the time.
The Trump champions like Peter Thiel, the oddball maverick Silicon Valley billionaire, criticized the media four years ago for taking the candidate “literally” rather than seriously (The line originated with a conservative columnist.)
That was dead wrong.
Trump should have been taken literally. He telegraphed most everything: his racial bigotry, contempt for experts whether they be scientists or generals, the “America first” neo-isolationism, the fondness for dictators including Russia’s Putin. On the economy and budget, Trump declared he would massively cut taxes, boost defense spending and not touch entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
This is what he did.
Senate Republicans voted unanimously for the tax cut as did 95 percent of House Republicans, a price tag of more than $2 trillion over ten years. They supported a 20 percent increase in defense spending and abandoned their long held demands about reining in entitlements.
Mick Mulvaney, the former Tea Party congressman and Trump chief of staff, acknowledged the hypocrisy on debt: Republicans thought deficits were “the worst things in the world” when Barack Obama was president and were “a lot less interested” when Trump took over.
Now is the worst time to rekindle that interest, real or political.
This is one of those times the federal government has to go big. There is so much hurt: more than 10 million are jobless; more than 12 million can’t meet rent and utility payments; up to 30 million are food deprived; many small businesses are closing, with dim prospects for reopening, and state and local governments are being forced to cut back on programs aiding already suffering constituents.
There is no prospect for any real improvement until the raging virus is under control. That requires a major infusion of assistance to accelerate production and distribution of the vaccine and for the strained health care system. Biden proposes to spend more than $400 billion in COVID relief.
The Biden proposal, not perfect, is well considered and vitally necessary to expedite a recovery.
The opposition is part ideological, a lot political.
The right-wing refrain is ‘It’s a big-spending socialist scheme.’ But the President’s initiative has been embraced by the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the leading Trump administration economist, Kevin Hassett. None are listed in the Democratic Socialists of America green book.
Moreover, there is a minimal risk of adding lots more red ink to save the economy. In a paper for the Brookings Institution, the two most prominent Democratic economists — former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Jason Furman, who headed the Council of Economic Advisers — persuasively reiterate that with the “epochal decline in real interest rates” in recent years, big budget deficits are far more acceptable: “In a world of unused capacity and very low interest rates and costs of capital,” they write, “the old fears of deficits crowding out private investments” are not warranted.
It’s always challenging for the federal government to spend a huge amount of money in a short time. For that task, Biden has assembled an experienced and talented team, starting with Jeff Zients, who fixed the botched rollout of Obamacare, in charge of the COVID-19 response.
The $1.9 trillion was padded in the final drafting so it could be shaved; one way is to target the $1,400 checks so it’s going to those most in need and not to the relatively well-heeled.
If the contingent of Senate Republicans who say they are serious about a compromise really are, they should get some concessions, some tweaks, cut 20 percent to 25 percent from the cost, and vote for this emergency measure in the next two weeks.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.