OPED: Trump, hypocritical GOP abandon fiscal conservatism

Andrew Malcolm
Tribune News Service

Remember Republicans' enduring commitment over most of our lifetimes to eliminate the federal budget deficit and trim the national debt? Well, forget it.

In fact, with the GOP controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, the government this year will likely inflict nearly an additional trillion dollars on the existing $20 trillion national debt. And just like your credit card balance, the total federal obligations will increase right along with now rising interest rates.

Amazingly after all the promises and pleas for more than two generations, it seems everyone, except maybe a showboat senator making a futile late-night legislative gesture, seems good with such overspending.

This week President Trump unveiled the White House $4.4 trillion budget, which isn't worth its own printing costs. It includes numerous program cuts and increased military spending.

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But White House budgets are always doomed, since Congress thinks it does the annual budgeting, or better said, in recent times fails to do the annual budgeting. But even Trump's 2019 document anticipates a $984 billion deficit, 48 percent larger than the last complete fiscal year.

Additionally, the administration released a much-anticipated, or at least much-talked about, $1.5 trillion nationwide infrastructure repair proposal. "We're trying to build roads and bridges," Trump said, "and fix bridges that are falling down. And we have a hard time getting the money. It's crazy."

Everyone pretty well agrees that much of the nation's infrastructure is badly corroded, even crumbling, from delayed maintenance.

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"This," a White House briefing official said, "in no way, shape or form should be considered a take-it or leave-it proposal. This is the start of a negotiation, bicameral, bipartisan negotiation, to find the best solution for infrastructure in the U.S."

Sounds reasonable. Also hopeful, very hopeful. The usually cranky minority Democrats could be expected to embrace such grand-scale Washington spending, much of which could be touted to their union supporters beginning in an election year.

Trump will need that Democratic support. That's because after the tax cuts that will add over $1 trillion to the deficit in the next 10 years even with an improving economy, a fair number of Republican hypocrites are now likely to rediscover their yellowing notes on fiscal responsibility.

Those tired words recall how terrible were Obama's four straight trillion-dollar budget deficits. And how vital it is for the nation's future that current budgets be balanced. And how imperative that an incomprehensible national debt with 15 zeros be slashed over time, likely by some future generation of pols.

The need for bipartisan support also sounds atypically realistic for Capitol Hill, which is good for a change.

Picture this: Trump's proposed infrastructure plan will fall under the umbrellas of at least six committees in the House and another five committees in the Senate, all chaired by Republicans — for now. Even Amazon's vast cloud computers can't calculate all the permutations, obstacles and political cross-currents such a legislative journey would witness.

Perhaps more importantly, all this spending and proposed spending underlines the death of the GOP's traditional fiscal conservatism under the leadership of a political insurgent and real estate billionaire whose companies declared bankruptcy a half-dozen times.

The longtime Democrat donor promised to nominate conservative judges and cut regulations. He has delivered there. As a campaigner, he complained about the costs of many things. But he never promised fiscal conservatism.

To be fair, Republicans never invited Trump to take them over. In fact, they ran 15 men and one woman to stop him. They each failed because the even wealthier son of a wealthy man heard the heartland anger and frustration all the others missed.

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Now, facing the dark prospects of a foreboding midterm election, his Republican Party is going along with the predictably unpredictable man they chronically grumble about. Gone is the gospel of the House Budget Committee's detailed 10-year tax-and-spending plans that would eliminate budget deficits for good. Oh, look! That committee's former chairman is now Speaker Paul Ryan.

We'll surely hear more fiscal hyperbole and see some political blocking plays this year from the alleged conservatives of the Freedom Caucus. After all, like every House member and a third of the Senate, they too must face voters on Nov. 6.

And as for reforming costly entitlements, the largest expense and real fiscal volcano beneath the molten federal spending dilemma, that must await another year and a crop of elected office-holders brave enough and willing to commit political suicide. In other words, don't hold your breath.

— Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.