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Why GOP is largely silent over Trump's deficit-heavy budget

President Trump has led the Republican Party in surprising directions – away from a balanced federal budget being only the latest. A recent poll indicates that's not a concern to most voters.

Susan Walsh/AP
Staffers unpack copies of President Trump's proposed FY19 Budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2018.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, released Monday, reflects a stark new reality of the Republican Party: Balancing the federal budget just isn’t a priority.

Even projected 10 years out, President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget does not lead to elimination of the deficit. On the contrary, it would produce massive annual deficits and add $7 trillion to the debt. Combined with last year’s tax reform, which cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and last week’s two-year budget deal, which increased federal spending by $300 billion, the nation’s fiscal picture is awash in red ink.

Annual deficits of $1 trillion or more could soon become the new normal. But Republicans, with some exceptions, are barely raising a fuss – despite an official party platform that calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

This fiscal trend isn’t all about Mr. Trump, analysts say, pointing to the long-term growth of entitlement and other spending and the unwillingness by politicians of both parties to make tough choices. But it does reflect Trump’s understanding of the American electorate, which polls show does not see reducing deficits and debt as a top priority.

For the GOP, now Trump’s party, the president’s read of the electorate has meant a departure from other traditional positions, not only on fiscal matters, but also on trade, immigration, and Russia. At the same time, Trump’s embrace of social-conservative positions has kept a key portion of the Republican base, the religious right, firmly in his camp.

But it is Trump’s departure from fiscal conservatism that has dealt the biggest shock to the GOP system.

“At this point, it looks like the tea party is dead,” says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “There seems to be no real constituency for spending restraint.”

Last week, the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky sparked a brief government shutdown when he blocked a motion to allow final passage of the two-year spending bill, asserting that “my party is now complicit in the deficits.” But other deficit hawks in the Senate remained largely silent.

Mr. Riedl ascribes only part of the Republicans’ seemingly new attitude toward deficits to Trumpism – a populism that makes reforms or cuts to government programs like Social Security and Medicare anathema. Though Trump’s budget does propose changes to drug pricing in Medicare, the government health program for seniors, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has ruled out addressing entitlement programs this year.

Tolerance of deficits is a bipartisan phenomenon that goes back years, but with the Republicans holding both the White House and both houses of Congress, the spotlight is on them.

“The GOP is united around tax cuts and defense increases; they’re not united around spending cuts,” Riedl says. “Basically, the party is united around the dessert, but not around the actual work of paying for government.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, a founder of the House’s tea party-inspired Freedom Caucus, expressed frustration Sunday over his party’s inability to rein in spending, but he blamed Democrats. The need to garner 60 votes to end a filibuster in a 100-seat Senate, where Republicans have the slimmest of majorities, effectively forces them to make spending concessions to Democrats to win enough votes.

Still, Congressman Jordan expressed frustration over the explosion of spending. “This was not consistent with what the American people elected us to do,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director and another founding member of the Freedom Caucus when he served in the House, also blamed the Democrats and the rules that give them power.

“People think we can do what we want to in Washington because Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House,” Mr. Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday. “But the truth of the matter is, because of the 60-vote rule in the Senate, we need Democrat support.”

It is, in effect, a form of mutually assured (fiscal) destruction. But most Americans aren’t clamoring for a new approach. Last month, in a poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, only 17 percent of voters called the deficit “the most important issue” – including 14 percent of Republicans and fewer than 17 percent of Democrats.

“That’s the basic problem with the deficit and the national debt; they’re important, but something else is always more important – and I don’t think that’s ever changed,” says William Schneider, a policy analyst at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

“The only thing different about now is that Trump has paid far less attention to the deficit and spending than other Republican presidents have done,” Mr. Schneider says. “I don’t recall his ever talking about reducing the deficit.”

It’s worth noting that the budget released Monday, like all budgets, will never see the light of day. But it's an important reflection of the administration's goals and aspirations.

Riedl of the Manhattan Institute also points out that it was last fall that the Republicans passed their first budget proposal that didn’t balance in 10 years. And he suggests a bit of hypocrisy on the Republicans’ part.

“Republican lawmakers find it easier to criticize deficits when they’re out of power. You could say they’re bluffing,” Riedl says. “They were major deficit hawks under [President] Clinton, then they got full control of government under [President] Bush, and we got larger deficits and spending.”

The GOP talked tough on deficits again under President Obama, he says, and “then as soon as Trump gets elected, we see the same thing.”

He cites Republicans’ handling of Obamacare as analogous: They passed a repeal bill when they knew it would be vetoed, but as soon as a Republican president took office, the same bill couldn’t pass.

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