House Republicans defended their support for a two-year bipartisan budget agreement that would add $300 billion to the federal debt after the GOP spent years fretting about the long term impact of ballooning deficits under President Barack Obama.
The continuing resolution passed over the objection of some House conservatives last Friday brought an end to a government shutdown that lasted only a few hours, setting forth increases in both defense and domestic spending for 2018 and 2019.
In interviews Wednesday, Republicans who voted for the deal emphasized the need to provide certainty to the military instead of extending its funding from month to month with CRs and the importance of offering more resources to combat the opioid epidemic.
“We had a situation where I felt it was very important in a dangerous world right now to fund our troops, to fight opioid abuse, and to address national priorities such as infrastructure that have been left for so long,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.
According to Fleischmann, who supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, reining in discretionary spending is important but the cost of mandatory spending programs like entitlements is the “gorilla in the room” that also needs to be addressed.
“We need to sit down as Republicans, as Democrats, as Americans and address our large-scale fiscal concern and not just in a micro way look at this last budget deal,” he said.
Despite his misgivings about increasing spending without offsets, Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., said the imperative to fund the troops took precedence.
“Our defense has atrophied over the last decade and we need to be prepared for any contingency and support out men and women,” he said.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., took a similar stance.
“The budget vote last week was about funding our defense,” he said. “When the president and when [Defense Secretary] General Mattis say that we have a challenge of protecting the American people, I want to make sure we have a budget commensurate with protecting the American people.”
Republicans also dispute some of the more pessimistic long-term deficit projections, insisting that the economic growth spurred by tax cuts they supported will compensate for some of the losses.
When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed in December, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that, even after accounting for economic growth, it would still reduce tax revenues by $1 trillion over ten years. President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress maintain growth will be much higher than economist forecast.
“There is going to be a short-term deficit as a result of that,” Moolenaar acknowledged, “but we believe economic growth will make up for those deficits. When you consider the jobs that are going to result from this tax reform, people with more money in their paychecks, that’s always a good thing, better benefits, better salaries and wages.”
Fleischmann pointed to hundreds of businesses that have already announced bonuses, raises, and increased investment as a result of the reduced tax rates.
“I would argue that in a good sense, as we reduce tax rates, people will go out and work harder, companies will come back to America,” he said. “There will be tremendous growth.”
Though the budget bill had the backing of the president last week, some fiscal conservatives held firm in opposition.
“A lot of good Republicans voted for this spending bill, but I wasn’t one of them,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., “because at age 35, I’m one of the youngest members of Congress and I am intensely concerned about generational theft that we allow to continue to happen here.”
According to Gaetz, it is “morally wrong” for Congress to continue borrowing money to fund government without making hard choices on either taxes or spending.
“When you cut taxes and then you dramatically increase spending, you haven’t really cut taxes,” he said. “You’ve just sent the bill to the next generation.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus, called the increase in funding under the agreement “irresponsible” and suggested it violates the fiscal principles that carried tea party Republicans into Congress earlier in the decade.
"I think this budget does go against the fundamental tenets of not only the tea party movement but all fiscal conservatives,” he said.
“It strikes me as a little bit hypocritical,” said Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va., of his GOP colleagues who railed against excessive spending under President Obama but defend it under Trump.
“I do believe that out-of-control spending is an existential threat to our nation,” he said.
Days after the deal cleared through Congress, President Trump released his own proposed budget for 2019 Monday that is projected to pile on $7 trillion in deficits over the next decade.
Trump, who often attacked President Obama for deficit spending during his campaign and once promised to eliminate the federal debt in eight years, is calling for $4.4 trillion in spending in 2019, adding nearly $1 trillion to the deficit next year alone despite proposing cuts to social welfare programs and federal agency budgets.
Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed unenthusiastic about Trump’s proposal Wednesday.
“I’m a fan of the president, a supporter of the president, but I would not vote for the president’s proposal because I’m not voting for budgets that don’t balance,” Gaetz said.
McHenry noted that he opposed budgets under President Obama and President George W. Bush that he deemed fiscally irresponsible, and he suggested he would be inclined to do the same for Trump.
“I’ve been very consistent about that regardless of whether there’s been a Republican or a Democrat in the White House,” he said.
House members made clear that they see the president’s budget as a suggestion rather than a directive.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, stressed that Trump’s budget proposal has no immediate bearing on what Congress will actually appropriate for 2019. Lawmakers often defy attempts by presidents to eliminate or reduce funding for specific programs.
“The president’s budget is a statement of principles,” he said. “It’s not how the government gets funded. That’s Congress’ responsibility.”
Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., echoed that sentiment, saying there are things he likes about Trump’s budget and things he does not, but final fiscal decisions are always up to Congress.
“It’s the way it’s worked since days of yore, and I can’t remember a presidential budget that got put into law, into appropriations whole cloth,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen.”