Ever since Trump released his tax plan some two weeks ago, an intense internal struggle has been brewing among congressional Republicans over what it means to be a conservative in Trump’s America. On one hand, Trump’s proposed tax cuts will increase the nation’s already crippling twenty-trillion dollar debt, an unsustainable burden that many Republicans were quick to call attention to during the Obama administration. On the other hand, Trump’s tax cut is a tax cut nonetheless, presenting an opportunity for Republicans to finally pass a significant piece of legislation after their thus far unsuccessful efforts to dismantle Obamacare. If the White House and GOP lawmakers can’t reconcile this divide soon, it could present yet another blow to Trump’s already wounded legislative agenda.
For the past decade, Republican lawmakers have railed against our nation’s national debt. By the time Obama left the Oval Office after his two terms, he had nearly doubled the national debt, putting the figure at an unfathomable 19.9 trillion dollars. This gave GOP candidates plenty of ammo with which to attack Democrats on the 2016 campaign trail. For instance, after clinching the Republican nomination, Trump routinely cited the government’s woeful balance sheet as a tangible indictment of the man he wanted to replace and even made outlandish promises to eliminate the debt within his first term.
Unfortunately, it was only after eight months into his presidency that he realized the sheer impossibility of that task. The difficulty, as many GOP members warned during the campaign, is that Trump promised to lower the debt without touching Medicare or Social Security—two revenue-draining programs rapidly approaching insolvency. Couple this with Trump’s pledges to increase defense spending, which already stands at 598 billion dollars, and it became apparent that Trump’s campaign promises would be difficult to fulfill.
That is the reality many GOP lawmakers are now having to deal with as they decide how to move forward with the newest proposal from the White House. Over the past two weeks, the traditional Republican revulsion to red ink has been fading, in light of an overwhelming desire to notch a significant policy victory in the first year of Trump’s presidency. Some are attempting to quell dissent in their voter bases by arguing that the economic growth from the resulting tax cuts will help keep the deficit under control. “I believe that the biggest remedy for our fiscal situation is growth in the economy,” stated House Budget Committee member Steve Womack (R-AR). He added, “I am not averse to some deficit spending in order to create long-term sustained growth.” Womack’s line of reasoning seems to echo the sentiment of most of the Republican party, who believe that the party must take some necessary losses in order to fulfill their President’s campaign promises. According to Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), “I’m happy to live with a two-to-three trillion dollar static loss.”
However, there is another, albeit much smaller, wing of the GOP that vehemently opposes this line of thinking. Led by Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee lawmaker who gained popularity after referring to the White House as an “adult day care center,” they believe the idea that tax cuts will automatically pay for themselves is irresponsible, especially after many economists have thrown cold water on that notion. Corker stated in an interview that he is worried the GOP is falling prey to a “party-like” mentality. “I’m nervous about where this goes,” he said. “I hope that in the end if it’s a big deficit creator, then our caucus will not support it.” In unity with Corker, Todd Young, a Senator from Indiana, stated that “we can’t assume unreasonable rates of economic growth or we’re being fiscally irresponsible.” However, Corker and his allies, have been met with swift rebuke from their supposed colleagues in the Republican Party, with Scott Perry jesting that Corker will have to “learn a little bit more about economics” if he wants to make it in the private sector.
While these two opposing factions duke it out over live television, interviews and tweets, there is yet another group of GOP lawmakers who have an entirely different vision altogether. The most vocal member of this group is Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), often noted as the most libertarian leaning member of the United States Congress. He, along with his constituents, believes that drastic spending cuts are the only real method of ensuring a decrease in the national deficit. “I’m a huge deficit hawk. My opinion has always been that you pay for a tax cut with spending cuts,” Paul remarked. “And everybody else up here thinks you should pay for a tax cut by increasing somebody else’s taxes.” Paul’s statements were echoed by Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows (R-NC) who argued that revenue-neutral tax cuts are “just moving money around” and “don’t do anything for the economy.” That said, perhaps Meadows’ most accurate assessment of the entire tax fiasco centered on one underlying issue—Republicans don’t have the nerve to propose spending cuts.
For months now, GOP lawmakers have said they are willing to discuss possible spending cuts alongside an inevitable debt-limit increase, but those talks never got off the ground. Thanks to Trump’s promise to keep Social Security and Medicare fully intact, Republicans have had difficulty finding common ground on what specific government programs they would like to see cuts to. This has caused some conservative legislators to take a more radical approach, such as Thomas Massie (R-KY), who earlier this year proposed a one-sentence bill to abolish the Department of Education.
As Republicans fight amongst themselves, the Democrats wait quietly across the aisle, ready to vote down any piece of legislation that Trump has so much as breathed on. The question will be whether the country’s growing ire for our commander-in-chief will be enough to give Democrats a congressional majority in 2018. If so, the Republican dream of lowered taxes will be replaced with a nightmare of higher, more progressive taxation promoted by congressional Democrats.
This article has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Image licensed under Creative Commons; original can be found here.