Nothing is more predictable than Republicans complaining about budget deficits and federal spending — as soon as a Democrat enters the White House.
Wasteful fiscal decisions, especially cutting taxes for their wealthiest donors, never trouble these self-proclaimed "conservatives" in the slightest. But let a liberal spend a few dollars on a hungry child's breakfast or a teacher's salary and suddenly their hair catches fire.
So now that their old friend Joe Biden is president, Senate Republicans are roaring with indignation over his restrained, sensible proposals to lift America out of the deep hole dug by former President Donald Trump. Once a fiscal hawk himself, Biden has tried to explain that spending more now is required to defeat the pandemic, maintain vital services, save our people from starving — and eventually pay down the debt.
Yes, the deficit and debt will increase first, a prospect that suddenly seems to instill panic among the Republicans. Perhaps they ought to have thought about fiscal issues back when Trump was slashing tax rates for corporations and the wealthiest.
Leaving aside the political opportunism that is so numbingly obvious, Republicans might at least be expected to learn some basic modern economics. The time to restore balance to the nation's fiscal order was a few years ago, when Trump inherited a stable and growing economy from former President Barack Obama. At that point, the GOP would have been able to mount a serious argument for tighter spending limits to reduce the debt.
Conforming to tradition, however, Trump and his congressional enablers passed a gigantic tax cut skewed heavily toward the uber-rich and the largest corporations. It's what they do, regardless of economic or fiscal conditions, whenever they gain control of government. They did it when Ronald Reagan was president; they did it when George W. Bush was president; and as soon as Trump got into the White House, they did it again.
As expected, that irresponsible and selfish maneuver blew up the deficit and the debt, yet the Republicans plainly didn't care. Singing along with Trump in chorus, they repeated the same old mantra they've chanted for four decades. The tax plan, testified Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, "will pay for itself with economic growth."
Undoubtedly Mnuchin, who is unprincipled but not stupid, knew what was bound to happen instead. Tax revenues declined precipitously in the years that followed the tax cut, while millionaires, billionaires and giant corporations took fattened profits to the bank (which also minted money). The explosive economic growth predicted by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who proudly rammed the tax cut through, never happened. It was all just another Trump lie.
The problem with the Republicans' impulsive money grab is that nothing was saved for a moment like now — when we absolutely must spend a lot of money to save the country. Trump's incompetent and callous handling of the pandemic has not only killed tens of thousands but also left the economy in ruinous condition that can only be ameliorated by government. Economists on the left and the right agree on that, for a refreshing change, even including Trump's own economic adviser Kevin Hassett, a deep-dyed supply side advocate. So do Republican governors and mayors, who can't ignore the destructive impact of the pandemic on their own states and cities. They're as desperate for fiscal assistance as their Democratic counterparts.
None of those realities seem to have made an impression on the reborn deficit scolds in the Senate. Several of them pompously lectured Janet Yellen, now confirmed as Treasury secretary, on the perils of additional spending. She is a woman of great equanimity, which is why she didn't laugh in their faces.
Rather than mock their blatant bad faith, Yellen patiently explained that the only path toward fiscal sustainability is to spend whatever it takes, with low interest rates, to get out of this pandemic recession. The danger isn't that we will spend too much but that we will spend too little. "The smartest thing we can do," said Yellen, "is to act big."
The Republicans can resume their hypocritical budget kabuki when the crisis is over, if they must. Now is not the time. Act big, Republicans, even if your hearts (and brains) are small.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.