AuthorMangu-Ward, Katherine

"WE NEED TO act big," declared Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a February 4 interview with Good Morning America about COVID spending. The next day Vice President Kamala Harris took those words to heart, wielding her tie-breaking vote to push a package worth nearly $2 trillion through the split Senate, ignoring the official Republican counterproposal to spend a mere $618 billion.

But the right was far from united behind that smaller (yet still massive) package. The same morning Yellen was on TV, conservative columnist David Brooks was in The New York Times declaring "Biden Is Right To Go Big." This, of course, was after outgoing President Donald Trump left the country with budget deficits so large that the y-axis on every chart had to be adjusted.

The stated excuse for the spending bonanza is that this is agenuinely unprecedented situation. As Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) put it during a previous relief bill debate, "I happen to be a deficit hawk. I don't like borrowing money. I don't like spending money we don't have. But the time to borrow money--maybe the only time to borrow money--is when there is a crisis, and this is a crisis."

But President Joe Biden's agenda is not just about borrowing money to handle the fallout from the pandemic. Somehow, policy makers slid from "never waste a crisis" to "everything is a crisis," a development that is particularly irksome during an actual crisis.

As he announced his economic team in December, Biden went off-script to make this chillingly casual remark: "You know, the Founders were pretty smart....There's a reason why all the states and localities have to have a balanced budget, but we're allowed federally to run a deficit in order to deal with crises and emergencies, as we have in the past." That line wasn't written into his script; it was a peek at the cud the man was chewing at the moment. "We should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth," he went on.

To Biden--and indeed to nearly all of the mainstream Democratic Party, and much of the Republican Party as well--nearly every policy priority seems to be justified by a crisis large enough to win the Founders' hypothetical benediction to take on spreadsheet-breaking amounts of debt. Leaving aside the dubious historical validity of such a claim about our bewigged forebears, such statements reveal where the new president and his party are searching for rationalizations for what they are about to do.

Biden's plans are...

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