Politics

House Republicans Got Away With It—Again

The real legacy of the GOP House majority isn’t about the deficit. It’s about manipulation.

GOP Reps. Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan during a June 2011 media briefing in Washington.
GOP Reps. Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan during a June 2011 media briefing in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 2009, House Republicans went hat-in-hand to the American people begging for another chance. After squandering their majority status in the George W. Bush years and getting creamed at the polls in 2006 and 2008, they promised voters that they would do better next time. Specifically, they pledged that they wouldn’t send deficits soaring again.

GOP Reps. Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy knew that if they wanted the public to take their criticisms of early Obama administration spending even remotely seriously, an apology for past recklessness was necessary. So in their 2010 book Young Guns, the co-authors conceded the GOP’s previous failures to “rein in spending or even slow the growth of government” during the early and mid-2000s. Ryan, in an interview around the book’s release, insisted that Republicans “need to do a better job” on fiscal issues than they did during their previous majority, while Cantor said that “we’ve got an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that our party made.” House Republicans called their 2010 campaign platform the “Pledge to America,” and promised, if elected, to cut $100 billion in spending in the first year and to “establish strict budget caps to limit federal spending from this point forward.”

The begging worked. House Republicans rode the wave to a 63-seat pickup and a return to the majority in the 2010 midterms.

“This is a second chance for us,” Cantor told CNN the day after the election. “If we blow it again, we will be in the wilderness for a very long time. We have to deliver.”

That second chance officially ends in January. That’s when House Democrats return to the majority, and when the Republicans who pledged and promised and pinkie swore to “rein in” spending will leave with much the same fiscal record as their 1995 to 2007 predecessors: effective both at blocking a Democratic administration from spending (Clinton, Obama) and facilitating the recklessness of a Republican administration (Bush, Trump).

There are many things for which we’ll remember the 2010 to 2018 GOP House majority. It stopped the Obama administration’s legislative agenda cold. Smoothness of operation was never its forte, as constant standoffs between leaders and far-right factionalists made it the most dramatic party conference in the Capitol. And its dogged and frequently conspiratorial oversight of the Obama administration was surpassed only by its subservience to the Trump administration.

But nothing was more telling about this majority than the way it dismissed the issue it rode in on as soon as Trump replaced Obama. So before House Republicans come apologizing again for their past mistakes and begging for another chance, it’s important to emphasize right now: Republican have not, do not, and will not care about deficit reduction except as a rhetorical ploy for stymieing a Democratic government.

The central Tea Party policy victory of the Obama era was the 2011 Budget Control Act, the resolution to that summer’s tense debt limit standoff. In addition to some upfront cuts, the law established a bipartisan “super committee” to develop a deficit-reduction plan. If the “super committee” couldn’t agree on anything, a process called “sequestration” would indiscriminately apply spending cuts across the next decade to both defense and nondefense spending. The “super committee,” obviously, couldn’t agree on anything, and sequestration went into effect. Under Obama, Congress reached two budget agreements in 2015 and 2017 that provided some relief to the cuts (albeit with offsets elsewhere), but didn’t eliminate them.

To me, then, the defining moment of this Congress was when House Republicans decided to effectively eliminate the Tea Party’s deficit-reduction law once the White House switched from Democratic to Republican control. The 2018 budget deal increased spending by about $300 billion, without offsets, over two years. House Republicans would have treated such a budget as the actual apocalypse had it been negotiated with Barack Obama. Under the unified Republican government, though, it was framed as “rebuilding the military” and received 167 Republican votes.

Speaker Paul Ryan has been touting “rebuilding the military” as one of his two great accomplishments during his recent, mostly ignored legacy tour. Ryan’s other great accomplishment, of course, was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a $1.5 trillion bill offering temporary tax cuts for individuals and permanent tax cuts for corporations. (When those temporary tax cuts are made permanent, as they eventually will be, the cost will be much higher.) The tax reform plan was originally supposed to be revenue-neutral—i.e., not contributing to the deficit—but Republicans gave up on that once it became too difficult. The sum total of these moves is that the government is projected to reach a deficit of $973 billion in fiscal 2019, in a low-unemployment economy. Trillion-dollar deficits are on the horizon for as far as the eye can see.

Though Ryan, as speaker, deserves ultimate accountability for these choices, this isn’t really about him. He would have happily fulfilled his Obama-era promises to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security had the will of the House, the Senate, and the president been there with him. But they weren’t because that’s not what Republicans do when they have full control of the government. What they do, instead, is avoid politically difficult spending cuts, boost spending for programs that help their constituencies, and comfort the comfortable with tax cuts.

The lesson here is not that deficits are evil and that the next House Republican majority needs to get serious about them. (That will not happen because, as I’ve noted, they do not care about deficits.) The lesson is for Democrats to not let Republicans’ deficit hand-waving guide their choices ever again.

Republicans have been savvy in getting Democratic leaders and the Sunday-morning-show circuit to take their deficit routine seriously. Debt fears limited how big Democrats were willing to go with a stimulus package in early 2009. The same anxiety compelled Democrats to fully offset the Affordable Care Act’s cost, as if they might get either Republican votes or plaudits for doing so. They got neither, and Republicans—including Ryan himself—spent years attacking Democrats for the offsets they chose. Debt panic convinced Obama, in 2011, that he needed to negotiate with Tea Party Republicans ahead of a debt ceiling increase, and to consider Social Security cuts. Democrats should not take these Republican protestations seriously anymore. The Republicans certainly don’t.

Roughly five seconds after Nancy Pelosi takes the gavel on Jan. 3, House Republicans, as if struck by epiphany, will turn to each other and say, Good GOD, have you noticed the debt?! If a Democrat takes the White House in 2020, every elected Republican in Washington will break down sobbing over the projected fiscal 2021 deficit, right there on the inaugural platform as soon as the oath of office is complete. Democrats can either let them get away with it or not.

But if there’s one thing of which you can be certain, it’s that Republicans won’t be “in the wilderness for a very long time,” as Cantor predicted in 2010. The whole government will be theirs again at some point, maybe even in two years. And when it is, their top concern will be the ridiculously high, needlessly punitive 21 percent corporate tax rate on “job creators.” The legacy, then, is not that Republicans failed to do what they said they would. It’s that their routine works.