To understand the real priorities of today’s Republican Party, one should skip past the campaign rhetoric of last year’s midterm elections—all the performative outrage about critical race theory and transgender athletes—and focus instead on the very first thing that Republicans did, and the first thing they refused to do, once they took control of Congress in January.
The first piece of legislation the new Republican majority passed would rescind $80 billion in new funding approved last year for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), money mainly intended to help the agency audit rich tax cheats. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the new funding will bring in over $180 billion in revenue over the next ten years—which means that the GOP bill repealing it would add $100 billion to the national debt over the same period. Immediately after trying to gut the IRS (they’re also introducing a bill to abolish it outright), congressional Republicans signaled their unwillingness raise the federal borrowing limit, or “debt ceiling,” unless President Biden agrees to major spending cuts. Together, these two moves demonstrate that, despite all the recent talk about “realignment,” the GOP remains what it has been for decades: a party designed to convert the cultural grievances of white working-class voters into low taxes for the wealthy and austerity for the poor.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. During the Trump administration, Republicans were unconcerned about the mounting federal debt. They voted with Democrats to lift the debt ceiling three times with no demands for spending cuts in return. Indeed, between their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (expected to add $1.5 trillion to the federal debt over a decade), their bloated defense appropriation bills, and the emergency pandemic relief of 2020, $7 trillion of new federal debt was incurred while Trump was in office. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, the Republicans have suddenly rediscovered their fiscal scruples. For purely ideological reasons, they want to shrink the federal government, especially entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. For purely partisan reasons, they want to do it while a Democrat is president so that he, and not they, will be blamed by voters for all the pain this causes. In 2011, under the last Democratic president, Republican lawmakers used the debt ceiling as leverage to secure significant cuts to federal spending. Unless President Obama agreed to their demands, they warned, the U.S. government risked defaulting on its financial obligations to creditors, with possibly catastrophic consequences for the global economy. This was extortion, plain and simple; and it seemed to work.