Ky. Voices: Despite posturing, McConnell enabled government's growth

June 4, 2013 

Ron Formisano, professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is author of The Tea Party: A Brief History.

Sen. Mitch McConnell wants to talk about government spending. He wants the taxpayer to know he cares about spending and the federal debt, and he criticizes President Barack Obama for not wanting to talk about spending.

McConnell regularly appears on talk shows and offers reporters sound bites declaring repeatedly that "the biggest problem confronting our country [is] our spending addiction." "The American people," he intones every time he is about to give his own opinion, "are sick of spending." "We didn't have this problem [a big debt] because we weren't taxing enough."

OK, senator, let's talk about spending — yours. And let's focus on anything that depletes the U.S. treasury and amounts to spending, like tax cuts, also a form of, ahem, addiction.

The 2001 Bush tax cuts totaled approximately $750 billion over the following 10 years, with more than a third of those cuts going to the richest one percent, about $38,500 per household; the average taxpayer in the bottom 80 percent got as much as $600. At the time, polls showed most Americans preferred spending on education, health care, infrastructure, or shoring up Medicare rather than getting comparative chump change in tax cuts.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pushed through the 2001 giveaway through the "budget reconciliation process," forestalling a filibuster by opponents, and about which process the good senator has cried foul when used by the Democrats.

The total cost of this first round of tax cuts totaled $750 billion over 10 years. The 2003 Bush tax cuts passed the Senate, also by the budget reconciliation process, by 51 to 50 with Cheney casting the tie-breaker. This massive government spending via tax cuts benefiting primarily the wealthy, supported by McConnell, according to most accountings, cost the federal Treasury from 2001 to 2013 a total of $4.6 trillion, over twice the annual budget at the time. This came amid expanding, expensive wars in the Middle East and economic stagnation.

When the 2003 tax bill initially came to Bush he wondered if this was too much: "Didn't we already give them [the wealthy] a break at the top?" Cheney signaled the shift of the GOP from the party of fiscal responsibility to a radicalized tax cutting party for the rich whatever the consequences, growling that "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."

In the wake of the tax cuts passage, as Republican leaders discussed the possibility of even lower rates for the wealthy, Senate Minority Whip McConnell commented, "All I can tell you is, we keep on winning, we expect to win again."

During the Republican decade of DDM — Deficits Don't Matter — McConnell voted for Medicare Part D, a huge bonanza for Big Pharma, at a cost estimated in 2003 to be about $400 billion and later at $725 billion over a decade.

Then came 2008 and economic crisis — also known as pigeons (or perhaps vultures) coming home to roost. In February, Kentucky's senior senator supported an economic stimulus plan involving tax rebates for individuals (it passed the Senate 81-16, who says he can't be bipartisan?), adding another $106 billion to the debt that year and $115 billion over 10 years.

In October 2008, McConnell voted for the legislation creating TARP — the Troubled Asset Relief Program — also known as the Banks Too Big to Fail and Wall Street bailout. It authorized Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to buy up to $700 billion in distressed mortgage assets from private firms. Senate leaders, including McConnell, added further spending in added tax breaks and goodies to help get the bill through the House.

Of course, the senator voted steadily for appropriations for the Bush-Cheney Iraq War of choice, and belligerently attacked Democrats in 2006 for calling on the administration to start a phased withdrawal from a war gone bad. Privately, however, McConnell went to Bush that September, as told in the former president's recent book, and urged him to withdraw troops because their party stood to be damaged by the ongoing war in the November elections.

Clearly McConnell took his private position on American foreign policy for wholly political reasons, a position for which he excoriated Democrats as endangering United States' security. That would seem consistent with his position on spending taxpayer money.

Ron Formisano, professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is author of The Tea Party: A Brief History.

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