In the past year, conservative congresspeople have claimed to oppose nearly everything on the grounds that it would increase the deficit — even when legislation was formally estimated to either cut the deficit (health care reform), have no impact on the deficit (preventing teacher layoffs) or amount to a rounding error on the deficit (unemployment insurance).
And while conservatives were in charge, they launched two wars, established a prescription drug benefit run by the drug companies and slashed taxes for millionaires — all without offsetting the costs.
In other words, for conservatives, it’s never been about the deficit.
So it is not shocking that conservatives in the Senate overwhelmingly gave their initial backing to the tax cut deal that will increase the deficit by nearly $900 billion during the next five years.
Astoundingly hypocritical? Of course. Just not new.
Furthermore, to the extent that some Tea Party conservatives are complaining about this fiscal fact, they still refuse to admit that the cost of the tax cuts to millionaires is a major reason for the expansion of the deficit.
No, it’s the benefits for the long-term unemployed and the return of even a minimal estate tax on aristocratic heirs — that’s has the surliest conservatives up in arms. Even for them, the deficit itself is not their real issue.
Likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney also attempted in a USA Today oped to feign concern about the deficit, but then makes the up-is-down claim that only if the tax cuts for the wealthy were permanent — in other words, bigger — would they bring in more government revenue and close the budget gap.
But at the end of the piece, Romney betrays his real reason for opposing the tax cut compromise: “President Obama has reason to celebrate. The deal delivers short-term economic stimulus, and it does so at the very time he wants it most, before the 2012 elections.”
Yes, why try to make the economy better now, when we could keep trying to it make it worse and pin the blame on President Obama?
Fortunately, the conservative deficit dishonesty comes with an upside in this case.
Instead of deficit hysteria and congressional gridlock clamping down on a struggling economy, we are about to get another burst of stimulus. (Even if all of it is not the most effective kind of stimulus, it is better than no stimulus.)
As the President himself said recently, “It actually makes sense for us not do anything that contracts the economy right now because the single most important thing we can do for deficit reduction is actually expand economic growth.”
That’s exactly right.
It is economic illiteracy to slash the budget in the name of the deficit reduction during a weak economy. You want to pump money into the economy, get it growing again, to reduce the size of your debt relative to the size of your economy.
Even conservative budget hero GOP Rep. Paul Ryan said to the Wall Street Journal there needs to be a “pro-growth” strategy for deficit reduction. This is a point where some on the left and right agree, there’s just vehement disagreement what needs to be done to achieve sustainable growth.
So I am not lamenting conservative hypocrisy on the deficit in this instance. I am celebrating it.
What is happening right now in Congress is a bipartisan codification that a government austerity policy does not bring an economy out of recession. In other words, deficit hysteria is out, and that is good news for the economy.
Once we get everyone to admit it, and create a red line for any major budget cutting while unemployment is high, we will stave off any deficit reduction plan until it is appropriate — after the economy has recovered.