Among the many things missing from either of last night's GOP debates (coff, coff, Rand Paul) was any substantive discussion of reducing overall government spending. Toward the end of the undercard debate, Carly Fiorina did say something about the Republican Party being devoted to shrinking the size and spending of government, but that was about it.
Sure, there were stray comments about how awful President Obama has been when it comes to running deficits and increasing the debt (true, true), but ultimately the culprit is spending more than you take in.
As we're never slow to remind partisans, the latest supercycle of WTF budgeting began in earnest under George W. Bush who kicked out the jams on budget restraint like The MC5 tripping on speed. Jeb Bush railed against sequestration at one point and Mike Huckabee pushed for full funding of Social Security forever and ever, amen. The longest discussion about spending per se might have come when Marco Rubio slagged Ted Cruz for voting for a Rand Paul budget that would have—egads!—cut defense spending!
[Rubio:] Every single time that there has been a Defense bill in the Senate, three people team up to vote against it. Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. In fact, the only budget you have ever voted for, Ted, in your entire time in the Senate is a budget from Rand Paul that brags about how it cuts defense.
As FiveThirtyEight's Andrew Flowers notes, nobody in either party (or the media) seems interested in debt and deficits these days.
Most GOP candidates this cycle aren't even paying lip service to the conservative goal of not adding to the deficit; they're not trying to hide that their tax plans would add billions and in some cases trillions of dollars to the deficit….
it's not just GOP candidates, either. Members of Congress utter the words "deficit" or "debt" far less frequently than they did a few years back. That's according to Capitol Words data provided by the Sunlight Foundation, which mines the Congressional Record to measure how frequently politicians use certain words.
Total mentions in Congress of "deficit" peaked in 2011 at 8,101. The count declined to 1,543 mentions in 2015. The use of "debt," too, has fallen precipitously since 2011. (The debt ceiling crisis in August 2011 no doubt fueled the spike then.)
Flowers writes that an improving budget situation explains part of the neglect. Although deficits under Obama remain at or near record-high levels, they have gotten smaller over the past few years, partly because a gridlocked government relied on continuing resolutions to fund the government. It's almost impossible to increase spending via CRs, which meant that year-over-year spending, after being jacked to record levels, actually flattened and fell under Obama (don't worry, it's going back up!). Flowers also suggests that Republican candidates might not want to acknowledge deficits have fallen under a Democratic president.
As more people lose interest in the deficit, Republican policy experts face a conundrum: how to raise alarm about what they still consider to be the government's profligate fiscal policy and how to promote conservative solutions when enthusiasm is waning.
Timothy Kane, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution, worries that politicians (of both parties) will kick the can down the road until built-up debt triggers a financial crisis. "Politicians don't care about debt until it's too late," Kane said.
Let me suggest another explanation, which I think provides a tighter fit with observable reality: The Republican Party is not actually dedicated to reducing spending by the federal government. Leave aside the many rhetorical gestures to the contrary. Yes, they complain about "out of control" spending under Democrats ad even occasionally under their own party. But when you look at the GOP's policies, votes, and speeches, virtually all of its representatives are clearly in favor of an always-esacalating defense budget and maintaining or increasing current levels of spending on Social Security and Medicare. Republicans might be fooling themselves or they might be trying to fool the public into believing they're fiscal hawks.
But if you're for those three things, there's virtually no way you can reduce overall spending. They simply make up too much of the federal budget. Out of nearly $4 trillion in spending, Defense costs $600 billion, Social Security $895 billion, and Medicare around $620 billion. Throw in another $230 billion for interest on the debt, and you're well over the 50 percent mark. Individual tax expenditures (such as mortgage-interest deductions and non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension savings) cost another $1 trillion.
In budget proposals released last year for the current fiscal year, Obama's projected spending about $50 trillion over the coming decade. The House Republican budget projected spending $43 trillion over the same time frame, with annual outlays growing from $3.8 trillion to $5 trillion. Yes, that's lower than what Obama wanted, but it's still more money each and every year, forever and ever, amen.
If, as Carly Fiorina said (and many believe), the Republican Party was truly committed to spending less money, you would expect not just to hear it in their rhetoric, but to see it in their policy proposals and budget plans. Instead, we're treated to silence on the questions of looming debt that threatens to slow growth for a very long time and explosive exchanges about the awful, terrible votes in favor of a budget that would actually reduce the amount of money the government shells out every year.