Mitch McConnell says that Republicans will not take any serious steps to reduce the deficit, unless they can also share blame for unpopular entitlement cuts with Democrats.
He didn’t use exactly those words during his Tuesday interview with Bloomberg. But the Senate Majority Leader came close, admitting that changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security might be “impossible to achieve” as long as Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. It was a quietly refreshing moment, in which McConnell effectively dropped the entire charade that Republicans are a party that prioritizes fiscal prudence—making explicit what has long been obvious to anyone who has paid the faintest bit of attention to Washington over the past decades.
During the interview, McConnell was asked about this week’s Treasury Department report showing that the federal deficit grew by 17 percent during fiscal year 2018, to $779 billion. Rather than acknowledge the obvious reality that the massive tax cuts Republicans passed last year had made the budget picture worse,1 McConnell opted for the standard GOP dodge and cast blame on out-of-control federal spending. “It’s very disturbing,” he said. “And it’s driven by the three big entitlement programs that are very popular”—meaning Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. “There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs,” he added. “Hopefully at some point here we’ll get serious about this. But we haven’t been yet.”
Republicans have exercised total control over Washington since 2017, which should have given them an opportunity to make some changes to entitlement programs if they were so inclined. That’s complicated a bit by the fact Donald Trump promised not to touch Medicare or Social Security (with some big caveats). But McConnell didn’t attempt to blame the president for his party’s inaction. Instead, he simply suggested that Republicans were unlikely to ever tackle spending on their own. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that entitlement changes, which is the real driver of the debt by any objective standard, may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government,” the majority leader said.
To McConnell’s credit, this is a fair reading of recent history. Republicans, after all, only seem to care about the deficit when they are out of power. During the Bush years, the party was happily profligate. It passed massive tax cuts, funded a disastrous war of choice in the Middle East, and added a prescription drug benefit, then balked when Bush tried to privatize Social Security. Once Obama entered office, the GOP rediscovered its inner deficit hawk, elevating Paul Ryan as its spokesman for fiscal austerity, while insisting that the white backlash movement known as the Tea Party was really a sincere cry for entitlement reform. Of course, once Obama offered to make a grand bargain that would have cut spending while raising taxes, Republicans again rebelled, because they didn’t want to increase Federal revenues. (McConnell elided over that inconvenient detail in his interview, insisting that the Obama years would have been the “perfect time” for entitlement reform, but that, “Unfortunately, it was not achieved.”) With Trump in power, Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of gutting Medicaid under the guise of Obamacare repeal, but were foiled by John McCain’s thumbs down. Other than that, they’ve been happy to pass tax cuts, increase defense spending, and push forward some reductions to food stamps, which would have a negligible budget impact while cutting off aid to needy Americans. Any even-handed observer would have to look at all this and conclude that Republicans mostly see the deficit as a political club with which they can opportunistically beat Democrats, rather than an actual existential concern.
McConnell isn’t quite going that far. Instead, he’s simply admitting that Republicans don’t have enough courage to put their own necks on the line for fiscal conservatism. Still, it’s worth dwelling on the political implications of his comments.
1) McConnell thinks the deficit is a longterm threat to the country.
2) He also says that it is driven almost entirely by entitlement spending. (This is absurd, given that we could raise taxes to pay for those entitlements, but let’s grant it for argument’s sake).
3) Finally, he admits that it will be “difficult if not impossible” for Republicans to take the supposedly essential step of reforming entitlements as long as they maintain uniform control of government.
The obvious conclusion to all this is that, if you’re the sort of person who supports entitlement reform, you should vote for Democrats, since the cause is hopeless without them.
That’s not the point McConnell is trying to make, of course. He’s just a guy sitting in front of a journalist trying to excuse his party’s hypocrisy about the debt. It’s OK that Republicans attacked Obama over spending, then did nothing about it themselves, he says, because the debt will only be solved through bipartisan compromise (which, um, Republicans rejected as well). Meanwhile, he’s also setting the stage for Republicans to demand entitlement cuts as part of any budget deal with Democrats, should they retake the House in November—despite having failed to do them on their own in the past two years. It should go without saying that Nancy Pelosi and her caucus would be absolutely insane to agree (especially since there’s no evidence that the deficit is actually threatening our economy in a meaningful way right now).
It may also be dangerous to take McConnell at his word. Despite their recent track record, it still seems like that Republicans would happily cut programs like Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance if they had large enough Senate majorities (again, they already came close on the former).
Still, Mitch McConnell has now stated for the record that Republicans may never try to address the debt—supposedly one of their top policy concerns—unless Democrats can take some of the blame for it. Moderate squishes of the world, take note.
1 Some conservatives will point to the fact that federal revenues actually rose 0.4 percent this fiscal year as a sign that the tax cuts are paying for themselves through economic growth, exactly like McConnell and other politicians promised. As Jim Tankersley explains at the New York Times, that is almost certainly dead wrong. First, the fiscal year began last October, before the tax law passed. If you only look at the nine months that the cuts were in place, revenue is down slightly year over year. Tax collections are also coming in well below what the Congressional Budget Office projected before the tax bill passed, suggesting that growth hasn’t been able to make up for the effect on revenues.