Congress has approved nearly $3 trillion in new federal spending to combat the impact of the coronavirus, and once the crisis has passed, expect Republican budget hawks to renew their attack on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to help recoup some of that money.
All of this spending, which no doubt has not ended -- not by a long shot -- has been needed to combat both the health and economic damage caused by the pandemic, but it comes on top of a record budget deficit worsened by the Trump-GOP tax cuts that largely benefited corporations and the wealthy.
The various packages, which have provided financial assistance to individuals and small businesses, states and municipalities, along with funds for testing, equipment and other needed health services, have been approved with strong bipartisan majorities as most lawmakers recognized the dire emergency facing the nation.
But now, long before the end is near, there are rumblings on Capitol Hill that some Republicans are worried about adding to the debt, even though the government's borrowing is virtually interest free because the Federal Reserve Bank has dropped its benchmark rate to a range of 0 to .25 percent.
“No more spending until we assess the money that’s already been spent — where the money is going, going to the right places, how much is the right amount,” Sen. John Barrasso (WY), the No. 3 Republican, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The majority of the Republican conference views debt as debt.”
But, the quote of the day came from Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has worked for Sen. Rob Portman and other prominent Republicans.
“I’ve been a deficit hawk economist for 20 years. As soon as the economy recovers, we are going to need significant deficit reforms,” he told The Post. “But again, you can’t begin to solve the debt crisis until they have solved the economic crisis, and that will take spending money in the short term.”
Attempts at deficit reform, in my view, are exactly what lies ahead post-coronavirus and just another reason why it is so important, especially for those who rely on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, to pay close attention to the actions of their representatives in Congress and to Trump, himself.
There will be a renewed push by many members of the GOP, and probably supported by Trump despite his protestations to the contrary, to attack those entitlement programs that are pretty much fixed in stone and a major part of the federal budget. Those three programs, plus unemployment insurance and Obamacare, comprise 70 percent of the federal budget.
The problem for Social Security could get even worse if Trump is able to convince Congress to cut the payroll tax, which he has been trying to do. That would drain the Security Trust
Fund even though it wouldn't help the coronavirus economic situation all that much since so many people have lost their jobs and no longer are paying that tax. But the Trust Fund's depletion would give conservative lawmakers an excuse later to seek to reduce benefits, increase the eligibility age, or find some other devious way to force the elderly to unfairly shoulder the cost of the coronavirus recovery initiative.
Would they really do that?
Not only do I believe they would, I also believe Medicare and Medicaid will be targeted. After all, those essentially are Democratic programs that help the elderly and the poor, to whom Republicans pay lip service (except for wealthy retirees, of course), and they cost a lot of money.
Republican deficit hawks hate such "entitlements." They have a history of attacking them. So why would they stop now? In fact, Trump told CNBC in January that entitlements would be on the table. "We're going to look," he said. That, of course, was before the coronavirus had struck with its full fury, back when Trump was ignoring the warning signs.
The saving grace for those who would suffer from such actions is that the election is only a little more than six months away.
A President Joe Biden would never stand for such an attack on vulnerable Americans. And, if Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives and can win back the Senate, which could happen, then the GOP deficit hawks will be screaming into an echo chamber.
But then, they'll no doubt have something to yell about, because they'll likely have to say goodbye all those tax cut goodies they doled out to their wealthy pals and big corporations.
And, if my crystal ball is at all clear, that could happen shortly after the new Congress is seated in January and the new president takes office.