Expressions of Concern About the Deficit Are Not Always What They Seem

Blog Post
Thursday, October 05, 2017

Almost every politician at the national level has expressed concern at one point or another about the federal government’s budget deficits. But one clear takeaway from the past 25 years is that these concerns are often situational and quickly abandoned as soon as they become politically inconvenient.

Most legislation has some fiscal impact, either in cutting taxes or increasing spending. Often, budgetary concerns expressed by a bill’s opponents are sincere. But sometimes critics of the underlying policy will use its effect on the deficit merely as a cudgel against it. Their concerns then dissipate as soon as it comes time to consider deficit-financed proposals they support.

Politicians in the minority party often cite budget deficits to suggest mismanagement by the majority. Many Republicans, for example, expressed deep concern over budget deficits during the presidencies of Democrats Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. But when a Republican president took office, many in the GOP had a change of heart and supported tax cuts, a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, and two military engagements -- all deficit-financed. Today, many Republicans who were fierce fiscal hawks under President Obama are advocating trillions of dollars in tax cuts without offsets even though the economic case for this is far weaker than when either Obama or George W. Bush took office.

Democrats are not invulnerable to this phenomenon. For example, many who criticized the deficit impacts of large tax cuts or spending policies under President Bush had no qualms about extending several of them under a Democratic president. Many Democrats also now advocate massive expansions of entitlement programs without realistic plans to pay for them.

Politicians should be judged by their actions, not their words. When one talks like a deficit hawk only to turn around and support expensive legislation that adds to our growing national debt, the only logical conclusion is that their past budgetary concerns weren’t what they appeared to be.