Opinion Politics

Mourning the Death of Fiscal Conservatism

by Caleb Talley 

I’m curious: Where the heck did all the fiscal conservatives go? Are there any left, or is fiscal conservatism, as we know it, dead?

In 2010, an energetic newly-elected congressman told reporter emphatically, “the priority is spending; the size of the government is really what it comes down to.”

That representative-elect was a 43-year-old restaurateur from South Carolina named Mick Mulvaney. He ran his campaign as a Republican young gun focused on fiscal discipline, during the Tea Party wave of President Obama’s first term.

It’s 2018, and Mulvaney is now the director of the Office of Management and Budget for President Trump. And under this so-called fiscal hawk’s watch, a Republican-led Congress approved a two-year budget, proposed by a Republican president, that would add a trillion dollars to the national deficit next year alone.

So, I’ll ask again: where are the fiscal conservatives?

It’s clear there are plenty of social conservatives running around, trying to control what little the Supreme Court hasn’t ripped from their jurisdiction, working their darnedest to make America the country they knew way back when. You know, back when you wouldn’t have to know your neighbor was gay, black people didn’t talk back and women were in the kitchen where they belonged.

Those conservatives are riding a whole new wave of electoral success, giddy as all get out at the prospect of marginalizing groups of people they don’t much care for.

I don’t care about those faux conservatives. I want to know where the Republicans are who, for eight years, lambasted every single thing that Obama did in regard to federal spending. For years, we were warned that the federal government was mortgaging the futures of our children and their children.

It was true then. And it’s still true now. The national debt, which increases roughly $5,000 a second, is more than $170,000 per taxpayer. The public debt to GDP ratio is more than 72 percent. Federal spending is still out of control bad; that hasn’t changed.

The only thing that has changed is leadership. Now, Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. And suddenly, the debt doesn’t mean a thing. It’s literally not even on the radar.

Just a couple of months ago, film-producer-turned-Treasury-Secretary Steven Mnuchin (producer of such hits as Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad), told reporters that government spending is “not an issue we’re focused on.”

Of course, it’s not!

The stable of loyal, congressional apple polishers are more interested in appealing to President Stable Genius’s delicate psyche than they are with adhering to principle or policy. The debt doesn’t matter nearly as much as giving our fickle leader what he wants. Just this week, once-frugal Mulvaney appeared before a congressional committee to answer questions about Trump’s proposed military parade. The cost? As much as $30 million dollar. That’s $30 million of taxpayer money, down the drain, for nothing more than to massage the ego of a tiny-handed authoritarian.

And while Mulvaney stared over his Harry Potter frames at congressional leaders, members of the Senate were debating how many billions to throw at Trump’s border wall. That figure, as debated this week, was $25 billion.

That’s $25 billion for a structure that will do absolutely nothing in the way of deterring illegal immigration. How unanalytical is this administration to think that putting up a stop sign is going to prevent anyone from breaking the law? They’re out of their gourd if they think the majority of illegal immigrants are just bee-boppin’ across the border on foot. Most illegal immigrants in our country today came here legally and overstayed their visas.

Want to limit visa programs? Go right ahead. But, for God’s sake, don’t throw billions of tax dollars at a vanity project meant only to excite a subsect of the population – those members of Trump’s base that share memes about Obama’s birth certificate on Facebook and forward glittery eagle gif emails to their nieces and nephews. I may be in the minority on this one (though I doubt it), but I think spending $25 billion on the illusion of safety might just be a stupid idea.

Sen. Rand Paul, who seems to be the last sane Republican in Washington, said it best: “When the Democrats are in power, Republicans appear to be the conservative party. But when Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party.”

The ongoing fiscal session of the Arkansas Legislature is sure to test the fiscal conservativism of our owns Republicans.

Unlike the federal government, a balanced budget is mandatory in Arkansas. We can’t run up a deficit. But that doesn’t mean we can’t increase spending year-over-year.

And that’s exactly what Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s budget for fiscal 2019 does, increasing the state’s year-over-year spending by nearly $173 million. A lot of that additional spending is coming by way of increased Medicaid spending. And those costs are guaranteed to rise, even as DHS continues to kick people off their rolls.

Because the governor’s original figures were higher than what he proposed in January, his office was quick to spend the latest adaptation as conservative – we’re saving the state $100 million!*

*But we’re also spending nearly $200 million more than last year!

What’s most troubling to me and some of our state’s few fiscally-minded lawmakers is the lack of surplus funds available in the event of an economic downturn. The money that was in the “surplus” has been siphoned off to pay for much-needed highway repairs, rather than to create a mechanism to fund road improvements. In fiscal 2019, around $64 million will be added to the state’s surplus. But $16 million of that will be allocated to highway funding, leaving $48 million for the savings account. Considering the state’s P&L figures, that’s chump change.

Compare that to our state’s last Republican governor, the crass Tweet connoisseur, Mike Huckabee. During his tenure, Huckabee faced a $200 million deficit. And despite cutting taxes 90 times from 1997 to 2005, he left office with more than $840 million in surplus. Of course, that’s all gone now. And the deposits into the savings account are getting smaller and smaller.

The Arkansas Legislature is loaded with social conservatives. But I think there are some fiscal conservatives left, too. I expect they’ll make themselves known as the session progresses. And they’ll be painted as obstructionists for doing so, just like Sen. Paul when he took a stand on federal spending. We need more of that, in Washington and Little Rock.

In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMPby way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Read more Cash & Candor here


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