For much of his political career, Rep. Paul Ryan has been the Republican Party’s chief noodge for “responsible” federal spending. He has been the youthful but wonk-y spokesman for the core ideal of balanced budgets and smaller government. Certainly, during Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House and whether serving as a budget committee chairman or as the vice presidential nominee on the Mitt Romney ticket in 2012 or as speaker, Mr. Ryan was for paying down the federal government’s bills — whether it meant slashing entitlement programs or repealing the Affordable Care Act. (Or, ideally in his Ayn Randian mind, both.) He even backed sequester spending limits (before the 2011 measure’s restrictions on military spending became so unpopular within his party).
So it might come as a surprise to anyone caught napping during the Donald Trump era to hear that Speaker Ryan, in announcing his retirement this week, bragged about two of his proudest accomplishments — the $1.5 trillion tax cut signed into law just before Christmas and the $1.3 trillion spending package Congress approved in March. Whatever the merits of those two actions, they are not evidence of fiscal hawkery. They sound more like the work of some new version of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” as conservatives are fond of calling the French whenever they catch them in behavior deemed too pacifist.
In the fact-based world, there’s simply no question about this. It’s what’s known as “math.” Because of those two measures, the U.S. is facing a trillion-dollar annual budget deficit by 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan agency that advises Congress on fiscal matters. But is any rational person shocked by that? When one increases government spending while decreasing tax revenue, that’s bound to happen. It takes a proud believer in supply-side economics — or an Alternative Fact of the Week standard bearer — to claim increased federal debt is a terrific accomplishment of someone whose entire raison d'être has been to reduce debt.
Now, we should pause at this point to allow Mr. Ryan’s supporters to vent and the Trump supporters to offer their customary “what-about-isms.” They will claim that the tax cut will encourage growth (the same CBO report actually sees growth shrinking by next year) or that President Obama grew the deficit by more, which is true but overlooks the Great Recession, the impact of making the George W. Bush tax cuts permanent and other factors well out of Mr. Obama’s control. Are we done with the magical thinking? Good. Back in the real world, conservatives still can’t escape the fact that their champion of reduced federal borrowing is leaving behind a legacy of greatly increased federal debt and seems pretty darn proud about it.
All of which underscores what voters should really take away from the one-two punch of deficit expansion under a Republican-controlled Congress and Republican presidency — the GOP can be just as fiscally irresponsible as the Democrats, they just tend to have different special interests to whom they are beholden. Cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, as Congress chose to do right before Christmas, and spending gobs more money on the Pentagon, as they did last month, are what make them happy, not sacrificing to balance the budget. What sets people like Mr. Ryan apart is that they can blow a hole in the deficit so piously and insist it’s all in the interests of fiscal discipline when it’s nothing of the kind.
True believers thought Mr. Ryan would eventually tackle entitlement reform, perhaps privatizing Social Security and Medicare or finally removing Obamacare from the books. With Mr. Ryan’s departure — on top of his reversal on deficit spending that could well have ramifications on mid-term elections — that looks extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing. The nation can’t afford the kind of debt that Paul Ryan’s brand of fiscal discipline would undoubtedly involve.
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