Senate Budget Votes Are a Sign of the Trump Era's Other Legacy

One of the most lasting consequences of the Trump years will be Republicans' complete abdication of fiscal responsibility.


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call Photos/Newscom

One of the most enduring consequences of the Trump years will be the one on full display in the Senate yesterday, as lawmakers voted 85–7 to pass a pair of budget bills for the fiscal year that begins October 1.

The bills will boost spending for the Pentagon and for a host of domestic programs within the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. It's all part of Congress' ongoing attempt to get a fiscal year 2019 budget onto Trump's desk before the end of September. While there are series of other bills that must be passed to complete the budget, the military and human services "mini-bus" accounts for about two-thirds of annual government spending.

The fact that Congress might actually pass a budget is rare enough to be notable on its own. But the part of the story that history will remember is how Republicans in the Trump years completely abdicated their demands for fiscal restraint. Thursday's vote is the latest in a series of bipartisan agreements to hike spending since Republicans and Democrats adopted a two-year budget framework in February. That deal hiked overall spending by $400 billion over two years, and everything since then—including yesterday's vote—has been about filling in the details.

Getting such broad bipartisan support for huge spending increases would have been unheard of a few years ago, when Republicans were building their brand by opposing the runaway spending of the Obama administration. But with Trump in the White House, it's been full speed ahead toward the inevitable fiscal reckoning.

Trump has not committed to signing the budget bills. But that's not because he's upset about Congress' record levels of spending. It's because he wants to spend even more. Specifically, the White House wants $5 billion for the construction of a border wall.

On its current tragectory, America will face a $1 trillion deficit next year. That's equal to the deficits at the height of the Great Recession, when tax revenues fell and government spending exploded thanks to Obama's stimulus. And this time they aren't running a massive deficit during a recession: This comes in the midst of booming economic growth, when it's easier to pay down the debt and balance the books. The economy grew by more than 4 percent in the second quarter, and yet the deficit has grown by 20 percent since October 2017, due to a combination of last year's tax cuts and this year's spending spree.

"Adding to our historic debt at a time of economic strength is baffling and dangerous," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in an op-ed for The Hill. "We should be preparing for the perilous road ahead. Instead, we squandered the opportunity and put debt on an even faster upward path."

The consequences of Congress' spending decisions this year will probably far outlast the consequences of the scandals that attract so much media attention. Every dollar spent this year has to be paid for eventually. Adding trillions to the national debt places a burden on future generations and could hobble future economic growth.

Meanwhile, Republicans' abdication of fiscal responsibility means there is now bipartisan agreement that deficits don't really matter. As Reason's Peter Suderman has noted in The New York Times, that is not something Democrats will forget when they return to power in Washington—and they may be returning to power in the very near future.

Republican hypocrisy about the budget deficit is not new. After all, it was a Democratic administration that last balanced the federal budget, only to have Republicans in Congress and in George W. Bush's White House knock it back out of whack. That paved the way for a new generation of Republican leaders to promise that they would be different and would hold the line. So much for that.

Trump, Stormy, Cohen, and the rest of the characters that have made 2018 such a bonkers year in American political history will eventually fade from prominence. But the bills will come due.