To pass what President Trump presciently referred to as the "Cut Cut Cut Act," and notch even one significant legislative win under unified government, the Republican Party has to overcome four seemingly insurmountable math problems.
Fortunately for the GOP, legislators already solved one of them with a shrug emoji two weeks ago. That's when the House voted 216-212 to officially abandon all pretenses of reducing the nation's $20-trillion debt, by rubber-stamping the Senate's 10-year budget resolution, which assumes even with openly fictitious budget scenarios that the deficit will increase by $1.5 trillion.
So after all that ruckus over debt ceilings, sequesters, bipartisan entitlement-reform committees and fiscal cliffs, it turns out that debt/deficit hawkery was just an oppositional pose, a way to regain power and unleash the cut-cut-cuts. As the increasingly lonely libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted, "2011-2016: Principles! 2017: End justifies the means."
The next tricky number legislators face is $4 trillion. That's the difference between the initial promised tax cut ($5.5 trillion) and the rose-tinted deficit projection. Most Republicans are not so keen on taking the cookies away.
But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for one, is not most Republicans — he, like his Arizona compatriot Jeff Flake, has emerged as a leading thorn in Trump's side upon announcing that he's not running for reelection in 2018. Corker told Politico this week: "I don't want to be one of those people, like so many people who come to see us and say, 'I'm all for tax reform, but this is one provision that I don't want changed,' which is everybody in the world."
Bottom line: "[If] we're adding one penny to the deficit, I am not going to be for it, OK?" Corker said on "Meet the Press." Which leads to the third math problem: 52-48. With Democrats in the Senate so far putting up a unified front of opposition, Republicans can only afford to lose one other senator besides Corker. Sadly for fans of tax cuts, the president has gone out of his way to attack more than that number in Arizona alone.
Flake, for one, is sounding an awful lot like Corker.
"If we are going to do 'cuts, cuts, cuts,' we have got to do wholesale reform," he warned Thursday. "With the national debt exceeding $20 trillion, we have got to take this seriously. … We cannot simply rely on rosy economic assumptions, rosy growth rates, to fill in the gap. We've got to make tough decisions. We cannot have cuts today that assume that we'll grow a backbone in the out years."
Public appreciation for budget math, it would seem, is in inverse proportion to future political ambition. It's almost as if there's a lesson there!
With only a few brief exceptions during periods of divided government, leaders of both major political parties have been all too happy from Ronald Reagan onward to untether government expenditures from receipts. The late Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan explained it best three decades ago: "The attractiveness of financing spending by debt issue to the elected politicians should be obvious," he wrote. "Borrowing allows spending to be made that will yield immediate political payoffs without the incurring of any immediate political cost."
So it is that Mick Mulvaney can go in 30 short months from being a House hard-liner warning that deficit spending in the absence of cuts is immoral, to acting as the Trump administration's main cheerleader for tax-cut-and-spend. "We need to have new deficits," the Office of Management and Budget director said last month.
As Corker and Flake have foreshadowed, going after any tax deductions and loopholes requires some political courage to face down outraged recipients and their organized lobbies. So ask yourself this: When's the last time this Congress has exhibited anything approaching bravery?
This is a legislature that hasn't passed a proper budget in 20 years, that can't fulfill promises large (replacing Obamacare) or small (killing off the Export-Import Bank), that hasn't even been able to muster changes to the century-old Jones Act in the wake of Hurricane Maria. A body that can't bear to jeopardize all of 1,500 shipping jobs in the course of helping 3.4 million devastated Americans is not likely to hold the line on killing the State and Local Taxes (SALT) deduction.
Which brings us to our final numbers problem: 35-23. The latter is the number of GOP defectors that could potentially sink a reform bill in the House. The former is the number of Republican lawmakers from the high-tax, high-income states of New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois. There's a reason why politicians don't generally vote for tax increases — it's hell on the ole job security.
SALT and the mortgage-interest deduction cut are the two biggest fillers of the $4-trillion hole, so caving on that could blow whatever slim chance there is for passage in the Senate. It's just like they taught you back in geometry class: Math sucks even when the numbers aren't fuzzy.
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason and a contributing writer to Opinion.