For Republicans, the Tea Party Is Over
Posted February 9, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul was right — Republicans can be hypocrites when it comes to spending.
Paul, the architect of Friday’s one-man shutdown, called out his own party for renewed profligacy after years of penny-pinching during the Obama administration, accusing Republicans of forming “an unholy alliance and spending free-for-all with Democrats at the expense of the American people and our party’s supposed principles.”
But Paul, R-Ky., had his own obvious inconsistencies. He was bemoaning a surge in deficit spending after enthusiastically voting in December for a deficit-ballooning $1.5 trillion tax cut. He then forced a brief and avoidable government shutdown that threw federal agencies into confusion, even though he had zero chance of blocking the budget measure.
Still, the underlying truth exposed by Paul and the predawn bipartisan approval of the budget package is that most lawmakers like to spend money, even when they say they don’t. That is what many came to Washington to do — to win federal resources to apply to solving big problems in their districts and states, problems like an epidemic of opioid abuse deaths, crumbling highways and bridges, and lack of access to health care.
They want to invest billions of dollars in a badly stretched military and fix embarrassing shortcomings in the system that is supposed to be treating veterans. They want to show frustrated and unhappy voters they are capable of doing something.
Republicans who supported the measure emphasized the added $165 billion over two years for the Pentagon. But they weren’t shy about proclaiming back-home benefits as well.
“This budget agreement will directly benefit the 1st District of Georgia,” Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, the Republican who represents that area, said in a statement. “It invests in American infrastructure and will be vital in the fight to secure resources for our ports and the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.”
The spending push reflected years of pent-up demand that resulted from Republican adherence to Tea Party-driven fiscal restraint, along with the party’s animosity for President Barack Obama and a pronounced unwillingness to fund his priorities.
Republican defense hawks said the restrictions imposed by formal spending caps were badly weakening the military. To get those restrictions lifted, top Republicans cut a deal with Democrats who were happy to take advantage and get a plethora of their own top proposals paid for in the bill.
Not to be forgotten in assessing the deal is the fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, who co-wrote the agreement, is deep in his congressional heart an appropriator — a member of the once-powerful panel that took immense satisfaction in doling out the federal dollars.
Until he found his anti-earmark religion when funding such pet projects fell out of favor, McConnell used to celebrate his spending skills, running back home to trumpet all the projects he had delivered to a state that was badly in need of federal largesse. McConnell is not afraid to spend federal dollars.
“I am confident that no senator on either side of the aisle believes this is a perfect bill,” McConnell told his colleagues. “But I’m also confident this is our best chance to begin rebuilding our military and make progress on issues directly affecting the American people.” Some Republicans warned that their party had made a huge miscalculation in getting behind the budget measure.
“With the passage of this spending package, I fear Republicans have ceded our moral authority to lead our nation away from eventual national insolvency,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a longtime deficit hawk, who is retiring.
Conservative advocacy groups were not pleased. Michael A. Needham, head of Heritage Action, said the measure “only serves as a reminder of just how out of touch Washington remains with the rest of the country.” The Club for Growth said the bill makes clear “that McConnell and the GOP establishment want to speed up the big government freight train with the help of big spending liberals on the other side of the aisle.”
Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, seized on the opportunity provided by the measure to win a level of domestic spending that seemed almost unthinkable just a few days ago — an increase of $131 billion.
It was a victory for them in most respects, but there was one big exception — the bill ignored the plight of unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. In agreeing to fund the government, Democrats lost their best leverage to win immigration concessions. It was that outcome that drove dozens of Democrats in the House and the Senate to oppose the measure.
After inflating the deficit during the administration of George W. Bush and subsequently losing control of Congress and the White House, Republicans were sheepishly apologetic, admitting that they had let their spending urges get the better of them. They promised they wouldn’t do it again, and those pledges helped them slowly win their way back to unified control of Washington.
Now they have done it again. Republicans might earn a bit of gratitude from voters who support a beefed-up Pentagon budget and see some helpful federal investment in their own backyards, as well as an end to a debilitating cycle of government shutdowns and dysfunction.
But Republicans may also pay a price at the hands of fiscal conservatives who believe that party leaders have fallen back into bad habits and betrayed bedrock beliefs by joining with Democrats in a spending spree.