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Looming Failure of Stimulus Exposes GOP’s Double Standards on the Deficit

Republicans only mention the deficit when talking about public benefits — not when discussing tax cuts or the Pentagon.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listens to President Trump speak during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2020.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell coming out against a stimulus deal, it looks increasingly unlikely that Congress will pass a COVID stimulus bill before the election. While supposed concerns about a clash between the stimulus and the vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court have thrown a wrench in the timing, the continuation of the months-long Republican resistance in the Senate is supposed to be based on good, old-fashioned fiscal responsibility.

Meanwhile, a closer look at GOP opposition to the deal on grounds of concerns about deficit spending reveals that, as usual, the conservatives’ stated concern about deficits is being triggered not by the amount of relief money to be spent, but by their opposition to what it would be spent on.

While the profligate Trump tax cuts may seem a distant memory, Senate Republicans have abandoned their spendthrift morals as recently as September, when they overwhelmingly backed a plan to keep the government open at current spending levels through December, including a $740 billion Pentagon budget.

Senate Republicans were happy enough in 2017 to rack up the deficit with the Trump tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and corporations. They’ve been happy year in and year out to rack up the deficit further with Pentagon increases that have brought Pentagon spending higher than it was at the peak of the Vietnam war. It’s only when federal resources might be spent on government services for the public that Republicans’ deficit fears suddenly resurface.

Republicans Balk at Aid to States

The current stimulus talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have run into obstacles as the Trump administration has balked at funds for a national COVID testing plan and hundreds of billions in relief for states. It’s no secret that the president has long opposed widespread testing, and it appears to be of little concern to Republicans if cities and states are forced to cut back services.

According to recent reports, Democrats have been negotiating for roughly $400 billion in state and local aid, more than either Senate Republicans or the Trump administration have been willing to spend. Facing severe budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, states have already begun cutting services ranging from public K-12 schools to services for opioid users.

The dispute over state and local aid is due in part to the false insistence among Republicans that state budget shortfalls are a blue-state problem (with disturbing echoes in the Trump administration’s bizarre, but brief, denial of wildfire disaster benefits for traumatized California communities last week). To the extent that some in the administration (and perhaps the president, judging by his words) believe that COVID budget woes are a blue-state phenomenon, the refusal to extend aid is both clearly politically driven, and also chilling.

In reality, it’s not that simple. Both red and blue states are suffering mightily, cutting services and losing planned-for tax revenues with no relief in sight. In one evocative statement, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, compared the state’s budget cuts to the gory “Red Wedding” episode from “Game of Thrones,” in which the members of a wedding party were indiscriminately slaughtered. By the summer of 2022, state and local budgets are estimated to face shortfalls of $500 billion if the pandemic doesn’t get worse. And that doesn’t account for the extra public health, education, and other expenses for the pandemic response. The $400 billion Democrats are proposing would only partially plug the gap, and roughly half of that would go to red states (those that supported Trump in 2016).

This is where many Republicans want to draw the line: at $400 billion (or, for the administration, a difference of only $150 billion from the administration’s offer of $250 billion for states) that would keep public school teachers on the job, and help maintain Medicaid during a global health crisis.

No Deficit Can Stop the Pentagon

In July, as prospects for a timely stimulus bill to succeed the CARES Act dimmed, the Senate voted 86-14 to allocate $740 billion to the Pentagon for 2021 in the National Defense Authorization Act. The vote passed on a bipartisan basis, with only four Republicans among the no votes. And not a single Republican senator supported another progressive-led effort to cut Pentagon spending by 10 percent to reallocate to high-poverty communities.

As recently as September, the vast majority of congressional Republicans supported a spending bill to keep the Pentagon humming along at its current rate of $740 billion per year through December 11, or until Congress passes a full budget for fiscal year 2021 (which began October 1 of this year). That’s a rate of about $2 billion for every day the negotiations drag on (or about $6 billion during the three days of Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett). The September vote passed the Senate by a count of 84-10 — hardly evidence of a major deficit hawk faction.

The Pentagon’s budget is in fact easy to cut without sacrificing security — but only if you’re looking. As in previous years, roughly half of the $740 billion budget can be expected to land directly in the pockets of weapons makers and the constellation of other Pentagon contractors that do everything from catering to equipment maintenance. The president’s pet project, the Space Force, was slated for a $15 billion budget in 2021 — and was a bad idea anyway.

In Pentagon circles, throwing around money by the trillions — $1.2 trillion for nuclear weapons upgrades, $1 trillion for the dysfunctional F-35 jet fighter, $6.4 trillion and counting for forever wars — is hardly worth a second look. The $925 billion in estimated payments of interest alone on war debt hasn’t led to any notable concern among the majority of Republican senators.

Dropping the Double Standard

In the end, McConnell and Senate Republicans saw fit to agree to a continuation of government funding to avoid a shutdown, including a $740 billion Pentagon budget, but let the stimulus come apart. As a result, millions of people are still unemployed, facing eviction or foreclosure, and scrambling to get enough to eat.

Their concerns were purely political. McConnell calculated that a shutdown would have hurt Republicans politically, but that limiting spending by leaving millions of people without basic necessities during the pandemic is in their best interests. Of course, it hasn’t helped that a volatile president preemptively cut off negotiations before allowing them to continue.

Progressives will keep fighting the double standard. It’s a certainty that stimulus talks will continue in one form or another, even post-election. And progressives are likely to launch another attempt to control the gargantuan Pentagon budget. One step toward success will be calling out the deficit double standard wherever it rears its head.

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