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Now That It's Budget Time, Republicans Are Pretending to Care About the Deficit Again

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

On Monday, President Barack Obama will release his budget for the 2016 fiscal year. It will call for a full replacement of the sequester. “The President’s budget will fully reverse those cuts for domestic priorities, and match those investments dollar-for-dollar with the resources our troops need to keep America safe,” a White House official said. The proposal, much of which Obama has already revealed in recent weeks, is certain to anger Republicans because it increases spending. But based on their actions over the past year, they are in no position to complain about the deficit.

At the end of 2013, Senator Patty Murray, then the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and Representative Paul Ryan, then the chair of the House Budget Committee, agreed on a budget to fund the government for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. That plan relaxed the sequester by a total of $65 billion. The Ryan-Murray deal said nothing about the budget for the 2016 fiscal year, though. That means, unlike his budget last year, which was more a statement of principles than a meaningful document, Obama’s budget this year is the Democratic Party’s opening bid in what is likely to be a long battle over the size of the federal government. The president’s budget will call for $561 billion in defense spending and $530 billion in non-defense spending—about $74 billion above sequestration levels. White House officials say that the increased funding will be offset by spending cuts elsewhere and increased revenue. “If Congress passes my budget,” Obama wrote in the Huffington Post Thursday, “our country would meet the key test of fiscal sustainability, with our debt declining as a share of our GDP.”

We don’t know what is exactly in his budget but expect most of that additional revenue to come from raising taxes on the rich. For instance, the president’s tax plan, which the White House released a few days before the State of the Union, would impose a tax on bank liabilities and raise the capital gains tax rate. It would also eliminate the “stepped-up” basis loophole that benefits wealthy heirs.

Republicans quickly shot back that the plan was unserious and an indication that Obama wasn’t willing to compromise. But they haven't yet presented their own plan. For the past few years, Ryan has been the standard bearer for Republican budgeting, but he is now chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Representative Tom Price has taken over for him as chair of the House Budget Committee, and with Republicans now a majority in the upper chamber, Senator Mike Enzi has taken over for Patty Murray as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. While Price, Enzi, and the rest of the party are sure to reject Obama’s plan, there are deep disagreements about whether to relax the sequester, particularly the cuts to defense spending.

Whatever the Republican plan eventually looks like, it’s likely to be heavy on cuts to non-defense spending and light on cuts to defense spending. It may even increase defense spending. Last year, for instance, the Ryan Budget raised defense spending by $483 billion over the 10-year budget window. His plan stayed within the budget caps by cutting non-defense discretionary spending by $791 billion during that period. And, as in past years, Republicans will surely point to the deficit as rationale for making further cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. Those fears are overstated. As the Congressional Budget Office reported Monday, the debt is only forecasted to rise slightly over the next 10 years. There’s no reason to panic over it and make drastic spending cuts.

But there’s an even better reason to ignore Republican fearmongering on the deficit: Last year, they passed legislation that would increase the deficit by nearly $1 trillion. The House GOP passed bills on a collection of corporate tax breaks (called the “tax extenders”) that would increase the deficit by more than $500 billion. Expansions of the Child Tax Credit and tax credits for education would increase the deficit by another $200 billion. Now that it’s time to craft a budget, suddenly they care about the deficit again.

In fact, House Republicans have already passed legislation this session that would increase the deficit. On January 9, they voted to change the definition of a full-time employee under Obamacare from 30 hours to 40 hours—a change that CBO projected will increase the deficit by $53 billion over the next decade.

Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this two-faced policymaking. If they care about the deficit, they have to care about it in all contexts. If not, then they shouldn’t justify their opposition to Obama’s policies on grounds that they increase the deficit. When Republican congressmen react to Obama’s budget and undoubtedly invoke the deficit, the media should ask them why they didn’t care about the deficit last year. Maybe there will be some accountability for a change.

This article originally stated that Rep. Tom Price is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He's chair of the House Budget Committee.