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Former RNC Chairman Criticizes GOP ‘Spending Spree’ Under Trump as ‘Bad Politics’

michael steele at politicon in pasadena

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told PJM that a lot of conservatives are “wildly disappointed” the GOP-led Congress has increased federal spending, arguing that the move was “bad politics” after years of criticizing President Obama’s deficits.

President Trump signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 in early February, which increased the Department of Defense budget by $165 billion above the existing spending caps and increased domestic spending by $131 billion over current levels for a two-year period. According to the Treasury Department, the projected deficit for FY2018 is $955 billion.

Steele, who served as RNC chairman from January 2009 to January 2011, was asked if he agreed with the passage of that spending agreement, which included a continuing resolution to fund the government until Friday.

“No, I don’t. I think a lot of conservatives swallowed hard when they cast that vote. I think a lot of conservatives around the country are wildly disappointed in it. I don't think the economics work. I think it's creating too much cash in the system and I just think it's one of those things that you wind up having to keep one eye on inflation and having to keep one eye on jobs and wages,” he said during an interview with PJM at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

“Instead of trying to bum-rush the process, create some synergies where you incentivize the employers. You incentivize the markets to ease into this environment because, again, I think it's a lot of pressure on the economy and I think it's just bad politics for the party to have advocated and pushed, as we did in 2010, the Tea Party leaders around the country, that we weren't going to come to Washington and spend money that we didn't have. We weren't going to burden future generations with trillions of debt, and that's exactly what we're doing,” he added.

In 2011, the GOP-led House fought Obama on a clean debt limit increase, which led to Standard & Poor's downgrading the U.S. credit rating. Lawmakers argued that spending cuts should match the amount of the debt limit increase. In 2013, the deficit limit hike was a central part of the “fiscal cliff” debate with House Republicans advocating for spending cuts as a condition for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling.

“So after doing all that, how does that look for the Republicans now that they're in charge?” Steele was asked.

“It's a tough look for them. It's very hard to go out and justify to people that, yeah, under Republicans we can spend this money but under Democrats we're going to sit back and criticize the very same level of spending, if not more. We saw the reaction to the profligate spending of the Bush administration for eight years that doubled the nation's debt. Obama comes in and everyone suddenly wanted to tighten their fiscal belt,” Steele replied.

“They wanted to apply those conservative fiscal principles to managing the nation's budget and its money, to managing and bringing down the nation's debt and its deficits, and now because you have a Republican president, Republican House and Senate, you want to go on a spending spree? I don't know how you justify it,” he added.

Steele urged the GOP to not present swaying positions to the electorate.

“I like to be consistent with voters and if I've said to them ‘look, we have a sound fiscal principle that's based around this type of policy,’ that we're going to have these kinds of results then, let's stick with that. So when you’re all over the map, when it matters again in the future, and it will – and the future is not necessarily after the Trump administration, it could be next year – it's going to be hard to go around and sort of, you know, justify tightening everyone's belt all of sudden because you spent all this money that we didn't have,” the former chairman said.

“Families in this country – we love to give that analogy – we need to budget our economy like families do,” he added. “Well, this wasn't that and I think we need to be smarter about it going forward.”

The Pentagon has never been audited in the past. A full audit is underway but has not been completed yet. Steele preferred to see the Defense Department “make an assessment” of its needs as well as areas where it could save money before Congress increased its budget by $165 billion.

“We're just not being consistent about it,” Steele said, calling the move “irresponsible.”

“You're talking about running almost $1 trillion in deficits. Are you kidding me? I mean, that makes no sense from a group of men and women who pledged that was an anathema – that was not the way we would govern and certainly was inconsistent with our overall fiscal philosophy,” he added.

In response to a lack of Democratic votes in the Senate for reducing the size of the federal budget, Steele replied, “What we're talking about, though, is the substance of policy. It's the substance of budgetary priorities and I think if you do it right, you can get the numbers you need in the Senate – if you do it right and you do it responsibly.”