(Editor’s note from Frank Hill: Chuck Blahous is a friend of mine with whom I worked on federal budget and entitlement issues starting in 1994. He served in the Bush 43 White House as an adviser on economic issues and was appointed as a trustee to oversee Social Security and Medicare from 2010 to 2015. He is a legitimate “rocket scientist” with a doctorate in computational quantum chemistry from Berkeley ― so if anyone can figure out the federal budget, it is him.
Chuck has 10 simple rules which he uses to teach people how Washington does ― and doesn’t ― work. We will be publishing them in sequence over the next several weeks so you may want to clip these out of the print edition or bookmark them from the online edition and keep them handy to share with your family and friends whenever you need them.
His article was in the July 25, 2023, edition of Discourse magazine published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University)
For several years, I have kept a running list of rules of thumb for U.S. politics, rules that I developed to help explain to outside observers how Washington works. Until now, it has always felt like the wrong time to publish them, as doing so might be misconstrued as taking one side or the other in whatever the political controversy of the moment. I offer them now with the caveat that they were not developed in response to any current subject of partisan dispute but are rather evergreen principles of American politics that will likely remain applicable for the indefinite future, as they have for the recent past.
1st Law: The strongest concerns about the federal deficit are expressed by the political party opposing the president.
This law is typically expressed as an accusation against the other side: that the other party only professes to care about the deficit when they can use such positioning to undercut a president, after which they quickly forget such concerns as soon as a president of their own party enters office. Certainly, there is no shortage of hypocrisy in politics, exhibited by the countless partisans whose alarm about federal deficits rises and falls and rises again, purely as a function of who is in office at the time.
Two important aspects of this phenomenon warrant particular attention. One is that both major parties do it, even though awareness of the other side’s inconsistencies naturally exceeds awareness of one’s own. The second point is that it’s not driven solely by opportunism. Rather, it reflects the realities that a) presidents tend to be judged (fairly or unfairly) on short-term economic performance; and b) the parties genuinely disagree about optimal economic policy.
The president’s party tends to prioritize short-term economic performance over long-term fiscal prudence and is usually more willing to deficit-spend to fuel it. The opposition party’s priorities, by contrast, incorporate more emphasis on the long term — the time when they hope to reclaim the executive branch. Moreover, each party is skeptical of the other’s policy prescriptions, with Democrats more willing to add to the deficit by increasing spending, and Republicans more willing to add to the deficit by reducing taxes. Each party doubts that the other’s preferred form of deficit increase will do enough economic good to justify increasing federal debt. Accordingly, a president usually faces resistance from the opposing party in Congress to both the amount and form of deficit spending he proposes.
The fluctuations in the parties’ relative concern about federal deficits is one of the most reliably recurring rhythms in American politics. Democrats worried aloud about deficits in the 2000s when they positioned themselves against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. In 2009, it was Republicans who fretted about deficits because they disagreed with President Obama’s stimulus spending plan, while at the same time Democrats shifted back to worrying about “mindless austerity.”
These positional fluctuations aren’t mere hypocrisy — they do, in fact, represent a genuine shifting of perspective whenever power and responsibility shift.
Charles Blahous is the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith chair and senior research strategist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University