Less than a year ago, Mitch McConnell assured Americans that his $1.5 trillion program of tax cuts for billionaires and multinational corporations would not increase debts and deficits. “I not only don’t think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral,” the Senate majority leader chirped. “In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap.”
Even as assessments by groups such as nonpartisan analysts and watchdog groups predicted that McConnell’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would push the federal deficit to $1 trillion and beyond, the Kentucky Republican declared that the measure he and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) steered to passage last December was a “revenue neutral tax reform bill.”
Now, amid reports that the deficit had grown by 17 percent to almost $800 billion in fiscal year 2018, and that it is headed toward—you guessed it—the $1 trillion mark, McConnell says it’s not his fault. Nor, he claims, is it the fault of the billionaires and corporations he and Ryan represent.
“It’s disappointing but it’s not a Republican problem,” the Republican leader said when asked this week about Bloomberg reporting that detailed how “the Treasury Department said the US budget deficit grew to $779 billion in Donald Trump’s first full fiscal year as president, the result of the GOP’s tax cuts, bipartisan spending increases and rising interest payments on the national debt” and noted that this represents “a 77 percent increase from the $439 billion deficit in fiscal 2015, when McConnell became majority leader.”
The blame, said McConnell, lies with “a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs.” While most Republicans try to talk around the issue—for obvious reasons—McConnell admits that “we’re talking about Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”
The majority leader is lying.
A substantial portion of the blame for these deficits is on him. According to a new analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the McConnell-Ryan tax measure “is projected to add about $230 billion to the deficit, including its effects on interest costs and economic growth.” At the same time, the McConnell-Ryan budget for 2018, with its massive increase in military spending, “is projected to add another $190 billion.”
“Taken together, legislation enacted in FY 2018 will add $445 billion to next year’s deficit, enough to explain nearly half of the near trillion-dollar deficits the country is likely to face,” explains the nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group.
McConnell is not a stupid man. He did not misjudge or miscalculate. Though he is a career politician with no real private-sector experience, the Senate’s top Republican is sophisticated enough to understand that massive tax cuts combined with massive increases in defense spending will increase deficits. Unfortunately, he also understands that fears about burgeoning deficits can be exploited by cynical politicians to achieve what might otherwise be impossible.
McConnell and Ryan represent Wall Street interests that for years have been salivating at the prospect of using privatization schemes to get their hands on so-called “entitlement programs.” Republicans leaders may present their austerity agenda as an effort to “rescue” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But austerity “rescues” have never been about helping the people who rely on those programs.
To think otherwise is to be as gullible as Charlie Brown when he runs for the football that Lucy has once again promised to hold in place for him.
What is surprising is that McConnell has telegraphed his intentions just weeks before 2018 Senate and House elections, revealing precisely the calculus that Democrats such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have warned about:
Step 1: GOP explodes the deficit with $1.5 trillion in tax giveaways to wealthy donors.
Step 2: GOP uses the deficit they created as an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.
For Americans who do not want to spend the next several years dancing to what Warren describes as McConnell’s “shameless and destructive two-step”—a manufactured crisis followed by debates about cuts and privatization—there is an alternative.
That alternative is to take the Senate away from McConnell. Smart Democrats have already made this connection. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, whose 2018 reelection run has provided a model for how to upend GOP strategies in red states, responded to McConnell by putting the pieces together: “In case there was any question about how Washington Republicans planned to pay for their corporate tax cuts.… The bottom line: they’re trying to steal the money Ohioans have paid into Medicare and Social Security to fill the hole they’re blowing in the deficit.”
Social Security Works Executive Director Alex Lawson is already on the road, going into states with competitive Senate races and asking the essential question: Do Republican candidates agree with McConnell on shredding the safety net? The group knows the answer: “If Republican politicians and the donors who own them retain full control of Congress this November, they are determined to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”
Defenders of these programs know that, no matter what politicians and pundits want to talk about, McConnell’s austerity threat has reframed the 2018 campaign in its final weeks. “Cable news might not be focused on McConnell’s plans to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid but candidates around the country are,” argues Lawson. “This is what voters care about.”
Voters do care about saving Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But they’re appropriately skeptical. They recognize that avoiding austerity will take more than an ephemeral blue wave. Rejecting McConnell is important. But rejecting the neoliberal mentality that has infected both major parties is equally important. No matter who is in charge of the next Congress, the austerity hawks will be hovering around it. The response to the threat posed by McConnell and his compatriots must combine absolute opposition to balancing budgets on the backs of the poor and absolute opposition to addressing deficits by assaulting the economic security of working families.
McConnell signaled in his Bloomberg interview that he wants to draw Democrats into his schemes. As always, he’s hoping that at least some congressional Democrats will embrace the “third-way” compromises that are invariably proposed by the “new Democrats” who put would attach a “D” to the indefensible agendas of Wall Street profiteers.
McConnell is talking about the need for bipartisanship to address the “crisis” he has created. But there can be no middle ground in this fight. There has to be clarity. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gets it right when he says, “Mitch McConnell wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to pay for Republicans’ massive giveaway to the rich and large corporations. Enough! The American people must stand up and make clear to McConnell that we will expand, not cut, programs working people rely on.”