Flipping Script, Dems Attack GOP on Fiscal Responsibility

Flipping Script, Dems Attack GOP on Fiscal Responsibility
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Flipping Script, Dems Attack GOP on Fiscal Responsibility
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Democrats are planning to turn the tables on Republicans this fall, making fiscal responsibility a campaign issue by accusing the opposition party of hypocritically increasing the debt after billing themselves as fiscal hawks in past elections.

The issue came to the fore Thursday, as 226 Republicans voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, though it failed to garner the two-thirds margin necessary for passage. (Seven Democrats also supported it.) Democrats attacked GOP lawmakers for backing the amendment after passing $1.5 trillion in tax cuts last year, and negotiating a bipartisan bill earlier this year that increased federal spending. The Congressional Budget Office earlier this week predicted deficits would spike above $1 trillion in 2020 and debt would approach $34 trillion by 2028.

“Let’s call this balanced budget amendment what it is: a stunt to give Republicans political cover for their deficit-exploding tax scam,” Rep. John Yarmuth (pictured at left), the top budget Democrat, said on the House floor. “The party of so-called fiscal hawks has become the party of fiscal hypocrites. They know it, and so do the American people.”

Democrats are hoping to spin that message into a campaign argument. In several ads already running in Senate races, the tax cuts and their impact on the debt are featured prominently. Senate Majority PAC, a major Democratic outside group, is running ads attacking the Republican tax cuts in Indiana and Missouri, two states President Trump won in 2016 and where Democratic senators are up for re-election this year. In both cases, the ads say the tax cuts added trillions to the debt, and assert that the debt will be financed by cuts to Medicare and Social Security.  

Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Priorities USA, a Democratic group partnering on those ads, said there’s a resistance among suburban and swing voters to ballooning deficits, but that the salience of the issue increases when it’s tethered to Medicare and Social Security.

“When you tie that together, it is a very concerning piece of information for voters to hear,” Schwerin said. “It’s something we are using and will use in advertisements around the country.”

Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won a Pennsylvania special election in a pro-Trump district last month, used the same formula, tying the tax cut deficits to future Social Security and Medicare cuts in one ad.

Republicans lawmakers have also irked some of their closest allies with their approach on fiscal issues. Groups backed by the Koch brothers were key proponents of the tax cuts, but they bashed Republicans for the agreement with Democrats earlier this year to increase federal spending. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a key Koch-backed organization, scoffed at the GOP’s balanced budget vote coming so soon after the spending increase.

“For Republicans who voted for that omnibus to turn around and then sanctimoniously vote for a balanced budget amendment, it’s hypocrisy, and I think Americans know that,” Phillips told RCP.

The Koch network has pledged to spend upward of $400 million on the 2018 elections, and already spent millions pushing for and praising the tax cuts. But Phillips said lawmakers’ vote on the spending bill “absolutely will be a factor” in where his organization spends this year.

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican member of the budget and appropriations committees, said it would be hypocritical of his party to vote on the balanced budget amendment -- but only if members didn’t also pursue legislation to actually achieve those budgets. Cole pointed to his own legislation on Social Security as an example.

“It’s like saying I’m going to lose 25 pounds on a diet. That’s great, set the goal out there. But you’ve got to start changing what you eat,” Cole said. “And we’re not changing what we eat.”

Still, he dismissed any criticism from Democrats as itself being hypocritical, arguing the party has veered a long way from balancing the federal ledger under Bill Clinton.

“They have never as a party submitted a balanced budget,” Cole said. “This concern over deficits on their part is nothing but political posturing.”

Rep. Charlie Dent, one of several dozen Republican lawmakers retiring after this year, rejected the notion that debt or fiscal responsibility would sway voters this fall, although he didn’t necessarily mean that as a positive for his party.

“They’re going to yell and scream,” Dent said of Democrats’ accusations of hypocrisy. “But ultimately the election isn’t going to be driven on a balanced budget amendment. This midterm is going to be driven as a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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