–Originally published in Washington Examiner Magazine–
On Tax Day 2009, I stood on the banks of Boston Harbor clutching a bullhorn. I was mad as hell at both parties for the infamous Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP,
Ten years on, it’s easy to see that hasn’t happened, especially on government spending. On Feb. 12, the national debt surpassed $22 trillion for the first time ever. When I started organizing with the Tea Party a decade ago it was $12 trillion.
Yet it’s also become clear why the budget hawks never had our day. It’s a story of false dawn after false dawn.
When the Tea Party movement began, we felt it was an idea whose time had come. I immediately got on board to organize, hoping my instincts about that shift would prove prescient. Perhaps others were as upset about bailouts and cronyism as I was! It sure seemed like it on that chilly April day, rallying a crowd of hundreds to the cause of limited government. Though they recognized then-President Barack Obama was a threat to fiscal restraint, they also seemed to understand that we had to elect Republicans serious about opposing Obama’s spending policies, not those who offered up watered-down versions of the same agenda.
I was so optimistic, especially as Tea Party Republicans like my then-future, now-former boss Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., began to win their primaries. Granted, I was only 22. But what some might call naivete, I believed was idealism. Ten years later and $10 trillion more in debt, I found myself asking: What happened?
For all the rhetoric, the results make it seem like the Republican Party was never really serious about fiscal conservatism. When comparing what members of the GOP said in 2010 and 2012 against what they said leading up to and since President Trump’s election in 2016, it’s easy to conclude that fiscal conservatism is nothing more than a slogan used as a cudgel against Democrats.
And it was effective as a bumper sticker! It was the Tea Party wave and dire warnings about the growing debt and out-of-control spending that swept many Republicans into power in 2010 and 2012. Campaign website archives from this era show these issues were a top priority for Republicans, especially among those associated with the Tea Party movement. Polling reflected that sentiment. Sixty percent of voters told the Pew Research Center that deficit reduction was a top issue in 2010. Today, voters no longer see it as a priority.
Why? It’s not as simple as saying it was all just rhetoric, although that was certainly the case among some Republicans. The Tea Party freshman class in the House, however, did try its hand at fiscal conservatism. In 2011, they began to demand spending cuts in return for voting to raise the debt ceiling. It all came to a head in the summer of 2011, when a fight with Obama to raise the ceiling triggered a credit rating downgrade. That, in turn, played a role in the stock market dropping precipitously, but at least also resulted in the first spending cuts since the Korean War. And they were real reductions in spending, not just a decline in spending growth, which is what politicians usually try to pass off as “cuts.”
There was trouble ahead, however.
The ultimate brinkmanship culminated with the Budget Control Act of 2011. The BCA raised the debt ceiling and decreed that if a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as a “super committee,” made up of six members from each party, couldn’t come up with a plan to cut spending by $917 billion over 10 years, a “sequestration” — automatic spending cuts — would kick in. The purpose of the super committee was to avoid this trigger, but it failed.
Sequestration targeted discretionary spending (nonmandatory outlays, as opposed to entitlements, which must be funded), including defense. Hawkish Republicans claimed the cuts impacted military readiness. and as a result, it wasn’t long before the spending caps mandated by the BCA were broken apart, despite the advocacy of fiscal watchdog groups. Among the organizations fighting to preserve the sequester was the Coalition to Reduce Spending, of which I was a board member from 2012 until I joined Amash’s office in 2016.
The coalition, the nation’s only organization solely committed to balancing the federal budget through spending cuts, rallied closely with a key group of fiscal conservatives, which included former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. In a bitter irony, Mulvaney is now Trump’s chief of staff and recently admitted that “no one cares” about deficits anymore.
Another indication of the change reflects the coalition’s work with former Rep. Mark Sanford, a signatory of the group’s “ Reject the Debt” pledge, which I helped develop around the time the BCA passed. Sanford, like my former boss, was one of the House’s foremost fiscal conservatives who kept pressing the importance of budgetary restraint in defiance of Trump. And sticking to his guns cost him. He lost his primary to a pro-Trump state legislator last year.
One of the few members still standing strong from this initial coalition is my former boss, Amash, who according to the coalition’s Spending Tracker is the most fiscally conservative member of the House. But this coalition of budget-hawk organizations and politicians, which also included stalwarts like former congressmen Raul Labrador, the late Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan as well as Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and other occasional allies, simply didn’t have the power to hold the line at the time.
It was ultimately former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who, setting a precedent that would later creep into his speakership, was instrumental in gutting sequestration with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, a compromise created with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that raised the sequestration caps. Despite continuous opposition from fiscal hawks, subsequent congresses have extended the precedent set by this bill, failing to adhere to the BCA’s caps.
After the BCA and subsequent “ fiscal cliff” fiasco, when spending cuts and tax increases threatened to hit simultaneously, the limits of what Republicans could achieve became clear. An air of optimism remained, however, as prospects for fiscal conservatism could still improve if Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014.
They did, but even under Republican control it was business as usual.
In 2015, with Republicans in control of Congress, votes to raise the debt ceiling again became routine with nary any dissent aside from a few remaining fiscal hawks. There was little interest from party leaders in reducing government spending. Democrats, with a big assist from the mainstream press, convinced enough people that failing to raise the debt ceiling is akin to “not paying our bills” even though borrowing more money and kicking the can down the road is a better example of not paying bills, as the coalition and its fiscal hawk allies have argued for years. But as Republicans moved away from sounding the alarm on spending and debt, so did the conservative base.
That laid the groundwork for the Republican presidential nomination race, which was under way by mid-2015. In September of that year, Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post wrote, “A drive to cut federal spending and reduce the national debt has for years topped the Republican Party’s national agenda. But this year, on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill, curbing the nation’s spending and borrowing no longer appears to be the GOP’s top priority.”
Tankersley went on to note that in the September 2015 GOP debate, the word “deficit” was only said twice, and neither time was it about the federal government.
Despite this shift, no Republican presidential candidate came out so brazenly against entitlement reform and spending reductions as Trump. In fact, he promised he’d “save” entitlements without making any cuts, and the White House continues to reiterate that his position hasn’t changed. This matters in understanding what happened under two years of unified Republican control (the timeframe I worked in Congress) and how the GOP continues to behave even with Democrats controlling the House. Gone are the days when Republicans threatened government shutdowns over the debt ceiling, and it’s largely due to Trump having no issue with increased spending.
In fact, the latest shutdown came as a result of President Trump demanding more spending. Since a president tends to set their party’s agenda, most congressional Republicans have played along. We see plenty of television appearances, press releases, and tweets these days from Republicans whose fervor for building the wall matches the passion they once had for what they vociferously referred to as unsustainable government spending.
Can the GOP return to those roots? For many conservative Republicans, Trump is a transitional figure, not a transformational one. And evidence shows, given the intersection of issue polling and candidate rhetoric, voters prioritize what they’re told to care about in that moment. One can easily picture a scenario where if Trump suddenly decided that changes to entitlement programs were necessary to save them, a shift in support for such a policy would emerge.
Nor is there much of an alternative: it’s not as though the Democrats are any more committed to fiscal sanity than the Republicans. The best solution is systemic reform, a complete overhaul with a focus on simplification and accountability.
Ever since The Budget Reform Act of 1974, the process of funding the federal government has become a nightmare regardless of which party is in power. Rather than passing individual appropriations bills, Congress nearly always lumps multiple pieces of legislation together in giant omnibus packages and relies on stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the government open. Shedding light on this dysfunction has long been a project of my former boss, Amash, and I was horrified to learn when in the thick of it just how convoluted the daily processes really are.
Under Ryan, who led the House during my time there, the process was worse than in prior years since he prevented members from freely offering amendments to appropriations bills. That was arguably the most frustrating aspect of working for the most fiscally conservative member of the House during this era. Amendments offered by Amash and our budget hawk allies were regularly cast aside entirely or unceremoniously stripped out in committee, sometimes even after unanimous passage, which happened to Amash in 2017. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the larger problem of all-or-nothing, several-thousand-page omnibus bills that are fed to members with no time to read them, no debate, and no open rule that would allow a fair hearing of amendments.
I knew based on my prior work how dysfunctional Congress was in this regard, but experiencing it up close, especially when it got worse while Republicans had control, really amped up my cynicism. The optimism I felt when Tea Party Republicans were winning their primaries, which I held onto when several declared their runs for president in 2015, has all but faded.
It became clear that electing Republicans who said the right things, even those who meant it, wasn’t enough. Congress needs to be overhauled.
The Institute For Spending Reform, an organization dedicated to fiscal restraint, put together a compelling list of ideas, with some taking their cue from countries that control their debt and deficits better than the United States. One example is the Swiss “debt brake,” which looks a lot like Amash’s “Business Cycle Balanced Budget Amendment.” It’s a process that limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period. The process appeals to Keynesians who push for deficit spending when the economy hits a roadblock, but also to fiscal hawks because it prevents politicians from boosting spending when the economy does well, which Republicans have irresponsibly done in the Trump era. (What goes up must come down, eventually.)
Another model comes from Sweden, where the legislature must approve borrowing money, not as a lump sum, but dictated by the purpose it serves. That helps to limit the amount added to the debt and serves as an accountability measure. Here in the United States, the BCA was a step in the right direction, but the rules are easy to override as we’ve seen time and again, making the legislation effectively toothless.
Substantive change will also require making what is currently a complicated issue easier for voters to understand. This includes making clear to the public that interest payments on the debt alone continue to eat up a more significant portion of the federal budget. And an accountability tool like the Coalition to Reduce Spending’s aforementioned Spending Tracker, created in partnership with the Institute For Spending Reform, allows people to learn how much their congressional representative and senators are spending, or saving, with their votes.
But time is running short. The Congressional Budget Office reports that over the next decade, annual deficits will edge toward 5 percent of GDP, remaining far higher than the 50-year average of 2.9 percent. We can’t ignore this forever. Social Security, healthcare, and interest payments on the debt alone will eat up 83 percent of all revenues over the next 10 years despite the fact revenues are currently higher than historical averages. So, while the prospects for fiscal conservatism may look grim in the short term, responsible budgeting and entitlement reform could very well create a bipartisan effort in a Congress faced with crisis.
In the meantime, conservatives have to redouble their efforts to focus on the most critical component of former President Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool: restoring fiscal sanity.
Solutions exist, but we need to start the conversation now and, as voters, hold our representatives to a higher standard. Our future prosperity depends on it.