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Republicans lack credibility on deficit

With their grim record of red ink, attacks on Biden policies ring hollow

Passengers wait for their bus in front of a national debt display in Washington in May 2020. Republicans should not be surprised when Americans find it hard to take them seriously for faulting President Joe Biden’s policies, Kahn writes.
Passengers wait for their bus in front of a national debt display in Washington in May 2020. Republicans should not be surprised when Americans find it hard to take them seriously for faulting President Joe Biden’s policies, Kahn writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Americans should be rolling their eyes at Republicans’ criticism of President Joe Biden’s policies as fiscally irresponsible. The same Republicans have shown through recent history, with the policies they pursue, that they only seem to care about deficits when Democrats run the government.

As the Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee for twenty years, I regularly watched Republicans reject experts’ warning by passing huge unpaid-for tax cuts and massive defense spending bills, adding trillions to the public debt. Sure, Republicans paid lip service to the deficit issue. But their actions spoke louder. This trend of GOP indifference to the debt only seemed to grow over the past four years when President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans added trillions in red ink long before the cost of COVID-19 hit the budget — to barely a Republican peep.

But it gets worse: GOP attacks on fiscal responsibility about Biden’s new infrastructure bill are also factually wrong. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “You’re either alarmed about the level of national debt and the future impact of that on our children and our grandchildren or you aren’t.” In fact, Biden’s plan does care about the debt’s impact on our children because it would actually reduce, not add, to it.

Let’s look at the numbers. Biden’s infrastructure proposal would spend $2.65 trillion over ten years, with most funding ending after eight years. At the same time, his tax increases would raise $2.75 trillion over 15 years. So within 15 years, the Biden plan would be fully paid for. And after 15 years, it would actually cut the deficit, eventually by a large amount. While all the spending is temporary, the tax increases are permanent. That means the tax increases would continue cutting deficits and promoting fiscal restraint for years to come. 

Republicans complain that Biden’s plan would take too long to recoup costs because the taxes fail to pay for the spending within a ten-year “budget window.” First, there’s nothing magical about a ten-year budget window. Over history, the so-called length of these budget windows has varied. Second, the bridges, roads and tunnels the plan would fund will benefit us not just for ten years but for many decades to come. Anyone borrowing money to make a long-term investment like buying a home understands the concept of repaying the mortgage over several years or decades throughout the life of the property.

With Republicans now lecturing about the debt with Biden in office, let’s look at their record of fiscal responsibility. Between 2017 and 2019, well before COVID-19 ever hit, the Trump administration increased the budget deficit by almost 50 percent, from $665 billion to $984 billion. In 2017 alone, Republicans passed tax cuts costing $1.9 trillion over ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and every penny of it was borrowed.

This Trump-era profligacy was not new to the GOP. President Ronald Reagan passed huge tax cuts and defense spending increases, which ballooned the deficit. President George W. Bush signed two tax cuts, large defense increases and a Medicare prescription drug bill, all of which added trillions of dollars to the bottom line.

The growing size of the projected debt long after we recover from COVID-19 should be a bipartisan concern and will require bipartisan cooperation to address. And in a plan as large as the Biden infrastructure plan, there’s plenty that reasonable people can, and should, disagree about. Furthermore, it is the job of the opposition party to responsibly criticize the policies of the party in charge. 

But given their grim record of red ink, Republicans should not be surprised when Americans find it hard to take them seriously for faulting Biden’s policies.

Thomas Kahn served as Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee from 1997 to 2016. He is currently a distinguished fellow at American University’s Center for the Study of Congress and the Presidency and a senior adviser at The Cormac Group.

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