Whither The Deficit Hawk: Changing Attitudes On Budget Red Ink Among The GOP

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 3:26 pm

There was a time when congressional Republicans railed against the budget deficit. In recent history, think of the Tea Party movement, whose members called for driving down debt, deficits and government spending.

And President Trump himself, on the campaign trail in 2016, pledged to brighten the nation's fiscal picture, which includes deficits — the annual difference between how much the government spends and how much it takes in — and the national debt, which is the accumulation of deficits.

But the U.S. deficit has soared, and the budget proposal he unveiled Monday is no match for it.

So where have the GOP deficit hawks gone?

"Retirement, to heaven I hope," says William Hoagland, who served for 25 years helping to shape GOP budget policy in the U.S. Senate. He's now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Right now it's not an issue for the American public I think is the problem. We have [a] low unemployment rate, we have low inflation, people don't see what the damages are being caused by these debt and deficits. So, party on."

Trump's fiscal 2018 budget projected that next year's deficit would be $456 billion. But Monday's budget predicts it would be $966 billion under the policies laid out in his latest plan. That budget blueprint projects deficits until 2035.

The budget predicts deficits would come down eventually because of cuts Trump would make to agencies. But, Hoagland says, that's not realistic.

"Getting to reduce the level of debt out there is important," he says. "But quite frankly I think it takes an awful long time to adjust the spending patterns of this country to get to it. And I'm not seeing the leadership out of the White House or out of the Congress to actually take on some of the tough decisions that are necessary to reduce the debt."


Interview Highlights

On the days when the Tea Party was critical of deficits under the Obama administration

The Tea Party was focusing on that portion of the budget that I think was not the "problem child" for what's creating some of the debt and deficits that we have. And the Tea Party was focusing not on any kind of increasing revenues — in fact cutting taxes, not increasing taxes. And so I could never square the circle with the Tea Party that they could actually talk about real reductions in the debt and deficits by the nature of where they were focusing. They were focusing their attention on reducing those things in the government which I consider to be the seed corn of the future such as infrastructure, transportation, science, technology. It's hard, if you're really serious about reducing debts and deficits on the spending side, you have to take on the politically challenging issues that are the mandatory programs [like Social Security and Medicare].

On whether Democrats' argument that Republicans only care about deficits when they're not in power is fair

Well I think it's fair ... today to say that. I don't think it's always been that case, but I think it's fair to say that's the situation today.

On deficit talk in the 2020 presidential election

Interestingly enough, the young mayor from Indiana [former South Bend mayor and democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg] — and I'm from Indiana, so a little biased here — ... is talking about it as an issue, which I think is important because it's his generation that's going to be impacted most by the fact that this debt and deficit accumulating is a tax on that generation.

On when the U.S. can take steps to curb deficit spending if policymakers are not doing so now

That is the question. I use the analogy that Charles Schultze [the late economist at the Brookings Institution] used to use, which is that it's like termites under the front porch. They're out there, they're working away, this debt and deficits accumulating — this is the highest level that we've had in a peacetime period. Those termites are eating away. Someday you're going to step out on that porch and you're going to fall through. It's unclear when that happens. I still believe that's going to happen unless we start addressing it.

The other factor I would say is: Maybe this generation never addresses it, but what it does is it creates more pressure on future generations to pay the taxes or the interest payments on the debt that's accumulated by this current generation. Long after many of the members are gone, it will come ... reducing the growth of this country in the future and putting pressure on ... our children and our grandchildren.

Art Silverman and Emily Kopp produced and edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There was a time when congressional Republicans railed against the budget deficit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

MICK MULVANEY: One of the most disappointing experiences I have as a politician - or anybody who even follows politics - was how poorly the Republican majority and the White House handled spending issues in the growth of government.

JOHN BOEHNER: The United States cannot default on its debt obligations. The jobs and savings of too many Americans are at stake.

PAUL RYAN: We owe it to our children and grandchildren to give them a budget that pays off the national debt.

CORNISH: The familiar voices of now acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Boehner and Ryan have left Washington. Mulvaney now also leads the Office of Management and Budget. And yet the deficit has soared under President Trump, and the proposal he unveiled yesterday is no match for it. It envisions closing the deficit by 2035.

William Hoagland was a Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee for years. I asked him to assess President Trump's plan.

WILLIAM HOAGLAND: His goal I enjoy. I do believe deficits matter. Getting to reducing the level of debt out there is important, but I think, quite frankly, it takes an awful long time to adjust the spending patterns of this country to get to it. And I'm not seeing the leadership out of the White House or out of the Congress to actually take on some of the tough decisions that are necessary to reduce the debt.

CORNISH: President Trump took office shortly after, I would say, the Tea Party years, so to speak, where deficit hawks came to Washington and made a big stink about where the deficit was going under the Obama administration. You're nodding because you remember those days, as well. What was it like then?

HOAGLAND: Well, certainly, the deficit hawks at that time, the Tea Party, was focusing on that portion of the budget that I think is not the problem child, if you like, for what's creating some of the debt and deficits we have. And the Tea Party also was focusing not on any kind of increasing revenues - in fact, cutting taxes, not increasing taxes. And so I could never square the circle with the Tea Party that they could actually talk about real reductions in the debt and deficits by the nature of where they were focusing. They were focusing their attention on reducing those things in the government, which I considered to be the seed corn of the future, such as infrastructure, transportation, science, technology. It's hard. If you're really serious about reducing debt and deficits on the spending side, you have to take on the politically challenging issues that are the mandatory programs.

CORNISH: At the same time, former Vice President Dick Cheney once said deficits don't matter. I want to ask you because Democrats, of course, would say, look. Republicans only care about deficits when they're not in power.

HOAGLAND: Well, I go back a long way in the sense that - of the Ronald Reagan years, and he was focusing on deficit reduction. Even George Bush, the first Bush administration...

CORNISH: Both administrations, though, that embraced tax cuts much like this one.

HOAGLAND: They all were focusing on bringing the debt and deficit down. There's no question about it. But you're right. There's a change here. And I think the change right now, quite frankly, is not only does it go back to had Vice President Cheney's comments. The president himself here recently said, who cares about the budget? We don't have leadership right now. We don't have leadership like we had back - I worked for Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico for many, many years. And he, along with - in a bipartisan manner, working with Lawton Chiles and other senators, Sam Nunn and others, worked to find common ground.

CORNISH: So is that a fair criticism? Are Democrats right to say, look - Republicans don't actually care about this issue? They wield it as a weapon when they're not in power.

HOAGLAND: Well, I think it's fair. I think it's fair today to say that. I don't think it's always been that case, but it's fair to say that is the situation today.

CORNISH: Where do you think these deficit hawks have gone?

HOAGLAND: (Laughter) Retirement. To heaven, I hope.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

HOAGLAND: Right now, it's not an issue for the American public, I think, is the problem. We have low unemployment rate. We have low inflation. People don't see what the damages are being caused by these debt and deficits, so party on. Interestingly enough, the young mayor from Indiana - and I'm from Indiana, so a little bias here - the young mayor from Indiana is talking about it as an issue. And that's the point...

CORNISH: So that's Pete Buttigieg.

HOAGLAND: ...Because it's his generation that's going to be impacted most by the fact that this debt and deficit is accumulating, and it's a tax on that generation coming up. So I find it interesting that he's focusing on it a little bit versus Mr. Sanders or some of the Baby Boomer generation that says, let's not worry about it. We have opportunities here to spend more money. Let's spend it.

CORNISH: But at the same time, if the U.S. does not take steps now, when?

HOAGLAND: That is the question. I use the analogy that Charles Schultze, an economist at Brookings, used to use, which is that it's like termites under the front porch. They're out there. They're working away. This debt and deficit's accumulating. This is the highest level that we've had in a peace-time period. Those termites are eating away. Someday, you're going to step out on that porch, and you're going to fall through. It's unclear when that happens. I still believe that's going to happen unless we start addressing it. The other factor I would say is maybe this generation never addressed it. But what it does it creates more pressure on future generations to pay the taxes or the interest payments on the debt that's accumulated by this current generation. Long after many of the members have gone, it will come as a future reducing the growth of this country in the future and putting pressure on our future generation, our children and our grandchildren.

CORNISH: That's William Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Thank you for coming in and talking through all of this with us.

HOAGLAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.