Deficit spending is officially back in style, leaving Washington’s professional deficit scolds wondering how they’ll manage to convince lawmakers to care about red ink again.
The one-two punch of Republicans’ recent tax cuts and the bipartisan, two-year budget deal Congress passed last week could boost the next fiscal year's deficit — the difference between what the government spends and what it collects in taxes — to more than $1 trillion, according to projections.
That’s caused a mixture of alarm and depression among the think tanks and foundations that have spent years pushing Congress to shrink the annual deficits.
President Donald Trump’s own budget blueprint, which was released on Monday and is largely a messaging document, did little to soothe their concerns.
“I would say there’s probably never been a more discouraging time for those concerned about the debt and the deficit because even our allies have taken a powder,” said Bradford Cook, a New Hampshire lawyer and longtime donor to the Concord Coalition, which advocates for fiscal responsibility in Washington.
“I used to be optimistic that we might be able to have some influence,” Cook added. Now, “we’re kind of that voice crying in the wilderness.”
It wasn’t long ago that the Concord Coalition — along with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which have similar missions — appeared to be winning their war. After deficits ballooned during the last recession, President Barack Obama established a bipartisan commission charged with figuring out how to rein things in, known as Simpson-Bowles after its co-chairmen, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles.
While Obama and Republicans in Congress failed to strike a “grand bargain” based on the commission’s recommendations, annual deficits shrunk anyway due to spending cuts, the expiration of some of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and an improving economy.
President Donald Trump vowed during the 2016 campaign that he’d go further, telling The Washington Post that he’d get rid of the full national debt — which at the time stood at more than $19 trillion — within eight years if he won. (The Post’s fact-checker ruled that impossible and chided him for “insulting the intelligence of Americans” by suggesting it could be done.)
But after Republicans spent the Obama years decrying annual deficits, the tax cuts they championed and Trump signed into law last year could pile on more than $2 trillion to the $20 trillion national debt over the next decade, according to the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget. The budget deal that Congress struck last week is forecast to add hundreds of billions more.
The advocates say a strong economy is the time to reduce budget deficits rather than run up more debt. They fear rising interest rates — which have remained low for years — could make payments on the debt more of a burden.
And they’re disappointed they no longer seem to have as many allies in Congress as they thought they did.
“Pretty much everybody has decided they’re OK with being fiscally irresponsible, save for a few brave members,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She named Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — who, like several other Democrats, voted against tax cuts and the budget deal — as the lone senator who still has credibility on fiscal matters.
When former Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) started the Concord Coalition with former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson in 1992, “we had a lot of fiscal heroes on both sides that we could go to and work with and encourage,” said Robert Bixby, Concord’s executive director. “That’s not the case now.”
Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a lobbyist who’s on the steering committee of Fix the Debt, a coalition of advocacy groups that includes the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, lamented that the national debt no longer seemed to hold the same place in the national conversation.
“We had a lot of corporate support for Fix the Debt at one time,” Fazio said. “A lot of that has dissipated.”
Still, Cook and other Concord donors said the gloomy prospects for slashing annual deficits hadn’t led them to reduce their giving.
Some donors have emailed to express frustration, Bixby said. “But that’s countered by others that are energized — horrified might be a better word — to take action.”
The Peterson Foundation, which is solely funded by Peterson family fortune, won’t be scaling back either.
“Our source of support remains very concerned about the issue,” Michael Peterson, the son of Peter Peterson and the chief executive of the foundation, said with a chuckle.
Some conservative groups that have decried annual budget deficits aren’t entirely put out with Republicans’ leadership. Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth both slammed the GOP for cutting a budget deal with Democrats last week that adds new annual spending — but they supported the tax bill.
Andy Roth, the Club for Growth’s vice president, said the group doesn’t believe tax cuts and spending increases should be viewed as equivalent.
“We should not hold tax cuts hostage because Congress doesn’t have the appetite to cut spending,” Roth said.
Deficits hawks at groups like the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget say there’s little they can do to force lawmakers to stop spending more than the government takes in.
Instead, they’re preparing for the moment deficits re-enter the conversation and redoubling their efforts to educate lawmakers and the public. Sixty-six percent of people surveyed in a Peterson Foundation poll last month reported their level of concern about the debt had risen in recent years, with 43 percent saying it had “increased a lot.”
“I’m not totally pessimistic,” said Alice Rivlin, who served on the Simpson-Bowles commission and later headed a bipartisan task force charged with reducing the national debt with Pete Domenici, the late Republican senator from New Mexico. “I think we’ll come back to this issue. I just hope we do it soon enough.”