Fred Hiatt: Don‘t celebrate the budget agreement; it imperils America

But even a president of gargantuan duplicity can’t accomplish this alone.

President Donald Trump speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, during a meeting with state and local officials about infrastructure. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

That we celebrate the bipartisan budget agreement approved last week shows how far we have slipped as a democracy since President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to tackle our fiscal problem.

It’s a decline that imperils our ability to keep America great.

It is true that government did not shut down last week (well, not for long) and that the United States will keep paying its debts (at least for now). The alternatives, entirely imaginable in today’s Washington, would have been worse.

But think back to the Obama-Boehner negotiations in 2012 and 2013. Then, you might recall, the dispute was over how to balance two difficult things: tax hikes and entitlement cuts. Neither was popular, but Democrats understood we needed one, Republicans knew we needed the other. Together, politicians were — almost — ready to put the nation on sounder financial footing.

Now we cheer because Democrats and Republicans agree to let each other increase domestic and military spending, respectively.

We have gone from arguing over portions of spinach and broccoli, in other words, to congratulating ourselves for letting each other eat as much of two kinds of ice cream as we want.

Look, the Democrats crow, we got $131 billion of mint chocolate chip! We win!

No, say the Republicans, we got $165 billion of butter pecan! We win!

As to difficult things — those are for suckers. If the other party won’t go there, why should we?

Politically, it seems to make sense. The only victims are: The next generations, who will have to pay the debt. Any remaining faith in politicians, whose hypocrisy once again is laid bare. And, maybe most destructive, the government’s wherewithal to help prepare the nation for the challenges of the coming century.

First responsibility of course lies with the cynic-in-chief. Has anyone ever frothed and foamed more, while caring less, about the deficit?

“Our deficit spending is China’s gain,” Donald Trump tweeted in 2011. ”@BarackObama is bankrupting our country.”

The next year: “Obama just had another trillion dollar budget deficit for the fourth year in a row. At least he is consistent.”

The next: “Obama is the most profligate deficit & debt spender in our nation’s history.”

And the next, and the next, and the next. It was, of course, all a game. It took Trump 13 months to surpass Obama in breathtaking irresponsibility, with his massive tax cut last year, unpaid for, and massive spending bill last week, mostly unpaid for.

But even a president of gargantuan duplicity can’t accomplish this alone. It required the dishonesty of the entire Republican leadership, pretending that tax cuts pay for themselves and deciding to pass a “tax reform” with no input from the Democratic Party.

That almost guaranteed that Democrats would forswear fiscal responsibility, not that most of them needed much convincing. Why restrain spending, they would say — just to pay for tax cuts for the rich?

The last pretenders were the conservative Republicans who supported the tax cut, opposed the spending bill and claimed the mantle of fiscal rectitude — but for the most part are no readier than anyone else in Washington to support a government of the size that their tax bill will pay for. Yes, they’re happy to cut food stamps and force Medicaid recipients to work; but when it comes to scaling back the big middle-class entitlements that increasingly gobble up the budget, do not count on their votes.

“This is no way to run a country,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., one of the few with the courage to oppose the bill for the right reasons last week. “Instead of scratching each other’s backs in Washington, we should be working to find a balanced way to fund our priorities while ensuring that we do not strangle the next generation of Americans in debt they did not incur.”

The key verb in that statement is not “strangle” but “fund” — because the saddest consequence of this failure of leadership is the lost opportunity to shape American greatness for the next generation.

Honest leaders would be saying that we need, yes, to reform entitlement programs, but also to levy sufficient taxes to care for our old and poor and simultaneously take advantage of the opportunities that science and technology are presenting: educate young people, retrain workers, invest in research, build the infrastructure that a 21st-century economy needs.

That would be one kind of leadership, the kind that did make America great and keep it that way for decades after World War II.

Or you can whoop and holler because you got two scoops and the other kid got only one.

Fred Hiatt

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.