Another Sunday, another slate of political talk shows focused on the president’s racist attacks on a member of Congress — in this case, the Twitter volley that President Donald Trump launched against House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney drew the short straw as the designated White House presence on the airwaves. Mulvaney struggled to defend the president, who said “no human being would want to live” in Cummings’s majority-black district — unsurprisingly, since it’s indefensible. So instead of restating the obvious — the president is racist — let’s look at another topic: the GOP’s fake concern for the budget deficit.
Last week, the White House reached a budget agreement with House Democrats that increases spending hundreds of billions above the caps set in a 2011 agreement between the Obama administration and the then-Republican-led House. On “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace played a clip of Trump promising to balance the budget within five years, then pointed out to Mulvaney some rather damning numbers: “The deficit under Obama dropped by an average of 11 percent a year in his second term. The deficit has increased by 15 percent a year in President Trump’s first two years. Under President Trump, our national debt has increased by more than $2 trillion. And if this bill goes through, estimates are the Trump debt will top $4 trillion.”
Mulvaney argued they had to deal with House Democrats, only for Wallace to note that the GOP controlled the House for the first two years. “Yes, who also threw our budgets in the trash, as well as dead on arrival,” Mulvaney replied. Besides, he claimed, “We have to deal with Democrats in the Senate, because of the 60-vote rules. We are always going to spend more money when Democrats have that seat at the table.”
Hang on: House Republicans trashed the president’s bill from the start, but also Senate Democrats torpedoed it? Even taken separately, those arguments don’t hold up. In neither case did either the White House or congressional Republicans make reducing spending a priority, either in negotiations with Democrats or in their broader political strategy for the budget negotiations. The truth is that when push comes to shove, deficit reduction is way down Republicans’ priority list.
Mulvaney’s defense of the current budget deal highlighted that reality. On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he told host Margaret Brennan, “We did get more money for defense. We got more money for the VA and we protected a lot of the conservative Republican policies that are hard-wired into these spending bills. … They wanted to undo a lot of our regulatory, our deregulatory agenda, and we prevented that from happening. Did we spend more than we wanted to? Yes. Did we get a lot in return? Yes we did.”
In other words, all of those policies were more important than spending cuts. It should also be noted that while two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the spending deal this year, last year they voted for similar spending increases when they were in the majority. It’s almost as if, when the chips are down, these Republicans don’t really care about deficit reduction, either.
To be clear, this is not to say that Capitol Hill should be more concerned about the deficit. Deficit hawks’ fears have not come to pass; indeed if anything, budget cuts implemented the early 2010s hampered the recovery from the Great Recession. Perhaps this will change if interest rates rise, but as of now deficits do not seem to be something to fear.
Rather, this is a request for the next time the capital gets wrapped up in a 2011-like battle over deficits: Do not let Republicans claim they really, truly care about cutting spending. Between the Trump and the George W. Bush administrations, there are now years and years of evidence that Republicans’ concerns about deficits apply only when they’re out of the White House.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s digital opinions editor.