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Analysis: Let's Face It, Neither of These Awful Parties is Actually Serious About Fiscal Responsibility

In our Thursday post, we assessed the bipartisan budget deal as "not good."  Yes, Pentagon leaders -- including people I trust and admire -- have urged busting the sequester's defense spending caps, on national security and military readiness grounds.  And not every piece of the approved domestic spending increases are wasteful or indefensible.  The biggest problem with the compromise is that abandons all pretense of fiscal restraint, and virtually guarantees more harmful and irresponsible can-kicking.  The GOP-led Congress has agreed to a two-year plan that will add $1.5 trillion to deficits over a decade, establishing a higher baseline from which "cuts" will be opposed, and on which additional spending will be built.  And Republicans have done so while surrendering a powerful mechanism (reconciliation) that allows them to pass budget policies without requiring the help of tax-and-spend Democrats (as they did on tax reform).  The result:

Some people defending the agreement are making this point:

Here's what bothers me: Republicans didn't even really try.  They could have attempted a full-court press explaining the need for increased military funding, while arguing that in an era of $4 trillion in annual federal spending (up from less than $1.8 trillion in fiscal year 2000, just for some perspective), breaking caps on domestic spending is unnecessary.  Or they could have demanded that in exchange for some heightened domestic spending for discrete priorities, Democrats would have to agree to some modest and mathematically-essential entitlement reforms.  Instead, we got this:

In 2017, for the first time in the post-Tea Party era, Republicans finally gained unified control of government. They spent months blundering on healthcare, and ultimately reneged on their eight-year promise to repeal Obamacare. They have now agreed on a deal with Democrats that would blow up the spending caps that were a legacy of the Tea Party movement — to the tune of $300 billion over the next two years...The agreement would boost military spending by $165 billion above the 2011 caps and nonmilitary spending by $131 billion; it boosts emergency disaster relief spending by $90 billion (remember when the Tea Party Republicans believed emergency spending needed to be offset?); provides $6 billion in more money to fight opioid addiction; has $20 billion in infrastructure funding; it provides more funding for community health centers; and it repeals the Independent Payment Advisory Board, one of Obamacare’s cost-containment initiatives, without any significant alternative ideas to curb Medicare spending. Now, let’s get one thing clear. It's possible to rein in long-term debt while keeping taxes relatively low and military spending relatively high, but only if those policies are met with a dramatic strategy to restrain entitlements and other nondefense spending. But that’s not what Republicans are doing.

I don't always agree with Rand Paul's ideas or tactics, but much of the fury from his colleagues that was directed at him for delaying final votes last night is best understood as cranky lawmakers just wanting to be done with it and go home without thinking too hard about their craven retreat on fiscal responsibility.  He was shaming them, and they didn't like it.  As tweets flew and passions flared, a demoralizing reality set in: Neither political party is really interested in addressing our systemic national debt challenges.  Many Democrats lashed out at Rand Paul and GOP opponents of the deal as hypocrites.  How can these zealots whine about deficits when they just "spent" $1.5 trillion on tax cuts?  This is a perverse view of who "owns" the country's wealth.  It's backwards:

The Left believes that money returned to taxpayers through tax cuts is effectively robbing the government of money to which it's entitled.  But it's our money, not Washington's. As conservatives, we believe that families and individuals should be able to keep more of the money they earn, and do with it what they see fit.  We believe that big government is a wildly inefficient and wasteful leviathan that does too many things, and does many of them poorly.  The goal is to empower families while trimming the federal government down, forcing it to limit its endeavors to core governing functions, and to perform those functions competently -- or at least to push things in that direction.  Taxing more and spending more is a recipe for anemic economic growth, and more entrenched reliance on broken and unsustainable government programs.  But taxing less and spending more is reckless, too.  I'm delighted that Americans are getting pay increases in the form of tax cuts, and that the US corporate tax rate is finally competitive with other advanced nations.  I support that policy.  But it's deeply irresponsible to give Americans exactly what they want: Lower taxes, coupled with ever-growing government.  The math just doesn't work.  The money runs out.

It's a mathematical fact that our big entitlement programs are the drivers of our long-term debt, which will precipitate a crisis.  The government has made tens of trillions of dollars' worth of promises that aren't paid for (known as "unfunded liabilities").  Most of the politicians making decisions now will be out of office or dead by the time the reckoning arrives, so they're lurching along in this dysfunctional fantasy world because they can.  Republicans now have a president who has vowed not to touch Medicare or Social Security, the biggest inflating debt bombs that we know for a fact are not sustainable in their current forms.  He's not even bothering to feign concern about them.  We have a Republican Party that talks a good game, and even votes well...when government is divided, or held by Democrats.  But once they win total control, they tie their own hands so they "can't" address the urgent problems that suddenly don't seem so urgent.  And we have a Democratic Party that is in total denial about fiscal reality.  And that's putting it kindly.  Republicans at least sometimes pretend to care about averting fiscal calamity; Democrats never do, except to mutter about deficits only in the context of attacking Republican plans to confiscate less of Americans' earnings.  Well, here's a fact:

We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.  Here's another fact: According to the programs' nonpartisan trustees, on their current trajectories, Medicare and Social Security will become insolvent within the next 11 and 17 years, respectively -- after which major cuts to promised benefits would be automatically inflicted.  Economic growth and tinkering may forestall those dates for awhile, but the shell game can only last so long.  Washington is run by two political parties, one of which doesn't care about debt math, and the other that merely makes a show of doing so.  And guess what?  Most of the voters who send members of these parties to Washington want lower taxes for themselves, plus more government.  That won't work.  Will anyone tell people the truth (ahem), then act accordingly?  

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