The GOP's debt boogieman is hurting families and derailing our recovery

Nov 2, 2020

Originally published in The Hill

As we await the outcome of tomorrow’s election, it’s important to know that, whatever happens, we will have the same leaders until January 2021. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who famously saw no “urgency” for relief, has declared that there would be no vote on a relief package for the American people during the lame duck session of Congress.

As a result, coronavirus cases will continue to break daily records, people will die, small businesses will close, workers will be laid off, Americans will go hungry, families will be evicted — more pain, more suffering and more loss.

American families cannot wait any longer — and they never should have had to. The pieces were there: House Democrats passed a compromise version of the Heroes Act, a bill with a lower price tag to appease congressional Republicans but still packed with the critical investments we desperately need. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were hammering out details. The president called for a deal.

So why did it fall apart?

Because the needs of the American people simply aren’t on Republicans’ radar. With their full attention on the booming stock market and their sagging poll numbers, the administration and its allies didn’t fail to implement a national pandemic strategy — they refused. It didn’t address their priorities.

The same is true about their opposition to financial relief.

Debt and deficits are their boogiemen, but at best, they’re deeply flawed economic arguments, and at worst, deliberate deceptions to excuse turning their backs on the American people.

Republicans often argue that government should be run like a business. But only asking about cost is a surefire recipe to run a business, and a country, into the ground. Questions of cost must come after questions of benefit, as well as an assessment of the price of not making an investment. For a restauranteur, borrowing $100,000 for a prime, new location is much different than for a new Humvee. But when it comes to addressing the needs of the American people, Republicans want you to believe shrewd investments and frivolous spending are the same.

On the other hand, Republicans could not have cared less about deficits when they enacted the Trump administration’s crown jewel, the 2017 tax law, which sent revenue plummeting to record lows, and increased deficits by at least $1.9 trillion over 10 years. What kind of business willfully goes into debt in order to slash revenue?

Still, their giant handout to billionaires wasn’t reckless because of the debt, but because the massive price tag offered no benefit to working families, infrastructure, future generations, security, or even the president’s illusive health care plan. It was just waste. Another gas-guzzling Humvee taking up space in the garage while millions of American families continued to go without.

As chairman of the Budget Committee, I’ve emphasized that we need a much more evidence-based, contemporary understanding of debt, and I’m far from alone. Fed Chair Jerome Powell recently warned that the danger we face today is investing too little, not too much, and experts across the ideological spectrum agree that we have ample fiscal capacity to provide urgently needed economic support to our communities, foster an inclusive recovery, and rebuild a stronger economy than what we had before. In fact, the failure to invest now to achieve these goals poses a more severe risk to our economic and budget outlooks than the large amounts we must spend to get there.

There is simply no sound economic reason not to provide the relief that is needed and to do it quickly. The reality is that with interest rates and inflation even lower today than before the pandemic, CBO projects we will spend less on debt service over the decade than it projected before the pandemic.

The U.S. is setting new daily COVID case records, and hospitals across America are maxing out their resources — again. Eight million families have been pushed into poverty this year. One in seven families don’t have enough food. Millions face eviction and utility cutoffs as protections expire. More than 23 million workers remain on unemployment, and far too many who are working have made the difficult choice of prioritizing their paycheck over their health.

Our country desperately needs relief: funds for testing, tracing, and treatment; financial support for families to survive; relief for state, local, and tribal governments to prevent additional layoffs and save critical programs and services; money for schools to operate safely; and relief to keep small businesses afloat. We have the fiscal space to do it.

McConnell said he saw no urgency for relief. It’s not hard to see how wrong he is. With the election soon behind us, there has never been an easier time for even a political animal to put politics aside. It’s ridiculous to say that the federal government should run like a business. But if you want to play that game, with the fiscal space we have and the potential for a better recovery, investing in a safer, stronger America is the smart financial decision. Most importantly, it is the only moral option.

John Yarmuth is chairman of the House Budget Committee.