It was only a matter of time, they warned, before the GOP seamlessly pivoted from adding $1.9 trillion to the national debt to decrying the poor state of the nation’s finances, as if they had nothing to do with it, and demanding that the budget be balanced on the back of the country’s three biggest social insurance programs. As evidence to support their concerns, Democrats had pointed to remarks by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately after the passage of the tax cut legislation, and more recently to comments by top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
On Tuesday, some three weeks before the midterm elections, Democrats received more ammunition for their narrative, this time from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Asked in a Bloomberg News interview for his reaction to news that the annual budget deficit exploded in President Donald Trump’s first full fiscal year in office, McConnell played the part of serious-minded budget hawk.
“It’s very disturbing,” he replied. “And it’s driven by the three biggest entitlement programs that are very popular: Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”
McConnell went on to blame politicians in both parties for lacking the backbone to make cuts to programs due to their popularity. He argued that elected officials will never pass the needed reforms so long as one party has control of the federal government.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s not a Republican problem,” he said. “It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”
He concluded by lamenting that when then-President Barack Obama presided over a divided federal government, he lacked the will to take on the problem despite agreeing it needed to be done.
There is a lot to unpack in McConnell’s remarks. For one thing, Obama doggedly pursued a fiscal “grand bargain” several times in his first term that would have cut Social Security in exchange for some new revenue. A major factor in the collapse of those talks were the objections of an ultra-conservative faction of House Republicans to then-Speaker John Boehner offering Obama any new revenue.
What’s more, the debt is not currently a major problem; Social Security is essentially self-funded; and Medicare and Medicaid cost growth is as much due to the rise in the underlying health care costs as it is the country’s aging population. (Medicare has done a better job controlling that underlying cost growth than private insurance plans.)
And to be fair, unlike Ryan’s comments in December, McConnell conceded that the GOP would not risk cutting the programs he calls “entitlements” without Democratic buy-in.
But Democrats immediately seized on the remarks as confirmation of McConnell’s “two-step fiscal agenda,” as the Center for American Progress put it in the subject line of an email promoting a statement from CAP President Neera Tanden blasting McConnell.
Step One: Drive up the annual budget deficit. Step Two: Blame it on programs you’ve long had in your crosshairs for ideological reasons.
To Democrats, McConnell’s comments are of a piece with the grand designs of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who once admitted that he sought to starve the federal government of resources in order to scale back its reach. After helping shepherd tax cuts during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2001, Norquist glibly declared that his goal was to shrink the federal government to the point “where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
In addition to the Democratic-aligned think tank CAP, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and New Jersey House candidate Andy Kim all sent out press releases blasting the comments for exposing McConnell’s plans to gut the country’s popular social insurance programs.
“Every Republican Senate candidate is on the hook for Mitch McConnell’s plan to cut Medicare and Social Security,” said DSCC spokesman David Bergstein.
Bergstein connected it to Republican support for legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act that would have reduced protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions and enabled insurers to charge older people higher premiums.
“First it was jeopardizing pre-existing conditions coverage, then it was pursuing an age tax that would charge older Americans more for care, and now it’s targeting the benefits Americans have paid into,” he said.