Dick Cheney has not had a change of heart.
The former vice president, the reinvigorated new owner of a transplanted ticker, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to advise Republicans on budget strategy as Washington heads for the “fiscal cliff.” And Cheney’s message hadn’t changed a bit since the days, early in the George W. Bush administration, when he told the treasury secretary not to worry about deficits.
Cheney, said lawmakers in the closed-door meetings, urged Republicans to continue high levels of military spending, warning them to resist automatic cuts that were put in place in last summer’s bipartisan budget deal. He offered not a word about how to fix the enormous budget deficits and soaring federal debt.
“The vice president talked only about the pros of appropriate investments in defense,” reported Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who worried that lawmakers might respond to such advice by abandoning attempts to restrain spending.
In that sense, the Republicans’ invitation to Cheney was worrying. In office, he championed policies — huge tax cuts, fighting two wars on credit and expanding Medicare benefits — that created much of today’s fiscal mess. Three years later, as the consequences of such policies have become clear, he is essentially advising the GOP on the same course.
Seeking Cheney’s advice on budget discipline was a curious choice for congressional Republicans. One wonders whether they will next seek lectures from Scooter Libby on grand jury procedure, Paul Wolfowitz on nonviolence or Donald Rumsfeld on charm.
Cheney’s hosts kept his visit quiet, scheduling no public events and having the former vice president escorted through the halls by a protective Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Cheney, stooped and thin but looking stronger than before the transplant, refused to answer reporters’ questions as he walked through the corridors, although I provoked a crooked smile when I asked, after his meeting with Republican senators, whether he had “set them straight.”
Said Cheney: “I’m just here to see old friends.” Those old friends included the entire Senate GOP caucus, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House leaders. Politico quoted an unnamed Republican saying that Cheney’s visit was meant to get lawmakers “ginned up” about avoiding defense cuts.
That Cheney would be the man to get Republicans ginned up is appropriate, because he and his Bush administration colleagues spent money like drunken sailors during their eight years in office. When then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill counseled against further tax cuts because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Afghanistan, Cheney informed him that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” according to O’Neill’s telling.
Cheney continued to champion spending late in the Bush administration, urging skeptical House Republicans to support Bush’s plan to bail out Wall Street. He returned later in 2008 in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Republicans to back a bailout of Detroit, warning lawmakers that “if we don’t do this, we will be known as the party of Herbert Hoover forever.”
The lavish deficit spending that Cheney championed accelerated under President Obama, and both sides accepted last year that something had to be done, even if they couldn’t agree on the particulars. So they punted the decisions to a “supercommittee” and, in case that failed, set up automatic “sequestration” — severe spending cuts set to take place at the end of 2012 that many warn could throw the economy back into recession.
The supercommittee failed when Republicans refused to budge on tax increases. And now Democrats are attempting to be equally intransigent. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a co-chair of the supercommittee, suggested Monday that Democrats would let the Bush tax cuts expire, and the scheduled spending cuts occur, if Republicans don’t yield on raising taxes on the rich. “If we can’t get a good deal, a balanced deal that calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share, then I will absolutely continue this debate into 2013,” she said.
And with both sides dug in, the Republicans’ decision to summon Cheney raises the specter that they’ll do as he says — call off the automatic spending cuts — without agreeing on a plan for deficit reduction.
“The vice president was very eloquent,” Corker told reporters. “But the last thing as a nation we need to do is put off dealing with this fiscal issue.” Although Cheney didn’t propose ignoring the problem, “with many of these presentations, I worry about something beginning to develop where people say we really should just kick the can down the road and not deal with it.”
Have you forgotten, senator? Deficits don’t matter.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.