The Climate and the Deficit: Part I — The Lessons Of Austerity

Last week’s shipwreck of what remained of the Republican Party’s traditional identity as the keeper of fiscal restraint has some important lessons to offer progressive climate advocates.

Shared sacrifice and austerity solutions only work if political leaders across the spectrum agree. Look at the GOP fiscal mess.

As Congress returned from recess, new forecasts emerged showing the US facing a genuine fiscal crisis, with “trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.” House Republican leaders responded by reviving the idea of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. Conservatives in the Congress went ballistic. “There is no one on Capitol Hill, and certainly no one on Main Street, that will take this vote seriously,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), citing the $1.3 trillion spending package that Republicans approved a month ago, legislation that after helping craft, President Trump called “monstrous” and briefly threatened to veto. But while the Freedom Caucus voted against the spending bill, it had earlier rallied behind an even bigger deficit bloating package, the Republican high bracket/corporate tax cuts.

In between, the President had airily submitted to Congress a budget which proposed major austerity cuts in federal programs — but was promptly “embalmed on arrival” and replaced by the large bi-partisan package of paired military and civilian spending increases which the President then negotiated, lacerated, and finally signed.

On Thursday, the House GOP voted to support the amendment, offering up 233 votes, far short of the needed 2/3 — and in addition to the catcalls from Meadows, a wide range of Republican leaders called the vote a sham.

But the real news had come a day earlier, on Wednesday, in the form of Paul Ryan’s retirement as House Speaker. Having accomplished one of his long-standing goals, major “tax relief” for the top of the income pyramid, only through the utter destruction of a second, fiscal responsibility, Ryan left the mess behind him.

Conservatives lamented. “In order to accommodate President Trump, the Republican Party has betrayed its principles on issues including Russia, immigration, free trade and fiscal austerity,” Max Boot began one Washington Post column. Others on the right chimed in. But as James Antle pointed out, this is a well-trodden GOP path.“The federal budget passed $1 trillion for the first time in history while President Ronald Reagan was in office. It eclipsed $2 trillion and then $3 trillion on President George W. Bush’s watch. It will zoom past $4 trillion under Trump.”

Indeed, as Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out, the GOP has been a complete fake on fiscal conservatism — whenever it had the power to do anything. Even Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, who supported the vote, had already conceded, balancing the budget is “a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led… It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”

But Republicans have repeatedly given up on fiscal conservatism, as the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedel commented, primarily because it has repeatedly failed them as politics. That failure, more than GOP ideological inconsistency, merits attention. My own view is that it was inevitable.

Fiscal conservatism was for the right what “shared sacrifice” climate policy has been for the left — a phantom faith, rooted in Cold War bipartisanship. While Republican and Democratic elites differed on the means in that era, they agreed on communism as the enemy. Combating this enemy demanded both bipartisan collaboration and public sacrifice. Much was demanded and granted.

Over the 1980’s and 1990’s that unity unraveled along with the Soviet enemy, accelerated by the increasing ideological polarization of the two parties. The 1989 tax reform bill was its last gasp. A weaker federal government, and lower upper class taxes, became the central GOP organizing project — for both economic and social reasons. But combining these with fiscal discipline required tremendous sacrifices from the broad electorate. Democrats opposed both of the GOP priorities, while proving in practice far more fiscally conservative — Bill Clinton actually balanced the budget! After 1989, whenever the GOP got close to cutting budget deficits, it either flinched, or paid an exorbitant political price.

Republicans remain eager to harvest votes by cutting taxes. But Trump’s nominal budget notwithstanding, they have lost their political appetite for slashing services, even if they despise them. Balancing the budget forces them to ask the public to sacrifice — Medicare, children’s health care, freeways, age subsidies, food stamps. The GOP can pursue fiscal prudence only at the cost of power — so it won’t.

This shouldn’t surprise. Democratic publics will sacrifice — when their leaders are united and offer a compelling logic. This requires that those leaders share some national, nonpartisan interest requiring broad public pain. But in a polarized politics (today’s), lacking an immediate and unifying national threat, the moment one party advocates pain, the other party is irresistibly lured to offer a free ride, and reap the political benefits. (This is not a new reality. No one in Britain listened to Churchill until it was, essentially, too late.)

Climate change, too, was initially presented as an existential challenge calling for shared sacrifice. Progress stalled as a result. But fortunately progressives no longer need to pursue that avenue, because the underlying economics and politics of climate solutions — unlike those of the budget — have changed, as we shall see in Part II of this blog.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg

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