NC congressman had blasted exploding debt. Why did he back plan that makes it worse?

At a 2015 congressional hearing, Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger grilled the U.S. Treasury secretary over the nation’s rising debt.

Pittenger described it as a national security threat and chided Secretary Jack Lew for appearing not to take it more seriously.

“A lot of smart people are concerned about the trajectory of spending and the imploding debt and the fiscal crisis that’s going to put us in,” he said.

But last week Pittenger voted for a spending bill experts say could increase the federal deficit by $320 billion over 10 years while adding $2 trillion to the national debt. The measure was backed by President Donald Trump but opposed by an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

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Now that vote has become a flashpoint between Pittenger and Mark Harris, the main candidates in May’s 9th District Republican primary. The Charlotte Republicans are running in the district stretching from Charlotte to Fayetteville.

Each is using it to make a different appeal to a conservative GOP base in a district that gave Trump 54 percent of the vote in 2016.

The vote also reflects the changing politics of deficit spending.

Harris called the Bipartisan Budget Act “a massive spending bill further mortgaging the future of our kids and grand-kids.”

“Only two (N.C. Republicans) went along with continuing to bankrupt our economic future,” he added in a statement. “Sadly, Robert Pittenger was one of those two.”

But Pittenger took the side backed by President Donald Trump.

Pittenger strategist Paul Shumaker said the vote “will probably be the first test referendum on the Trump presidency.”

“The congressman,” he said, “chose to stand with the president instead of in opposition to the president.”

Pittenger beat Harris in in the 2016 primary by just 134 votes. This year the winner will likely face Democrat Dan McCready, who has outraised both Republicans and has nearly $1 million on hand.

Republican Mark Harris campaigns during his 2016 race against Robert Pittenger.

Robert Lahser rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

‘Fiscal malpractice’

The bill that passed 240-186 ended a brief government shutdown while boosting military and domestic spending. Backed by Trump, it united many in opposition, including Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi and most of North Carolina’s 10 GOP House members.

Pittenger was one of 167 Republicans to vote for the bill, while 67 voted against. That included lawmakers such as North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

“I want to fund our military, but at what cost?” Meadows said in a statement. “Should we bankrupt our country in the process?”

When Pittenger questioned Lew in 2015, the debt stood at $18 trillion. Now it’s more than $20.6 trillion.

Then there’s the annual budget deficits. According to the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, last week’s budget bill, combined with the tax cuts approved last December, could create a deficit of $2.1 trillion by 2027.

“In the past two months, Congress has gone on a borrowing spree, racking up trillions of dollars in new debt on the national credit card at a time when the debt is already at post-war record highs,” Committee President Maya MacGuineas said in a statement. “(I)t is fiscal malpractice.”

Frank Hill was chief of staff to former 9th District Republican Rep. Alex McMillan, a member of the budget committee and a longtime deficit hawk. He’s baffled by lawmakers who vote for continued spending.

“It’s just amazing the lack of concern about the debt,” Hill said. “It’s almost like people have forgotten how to count.”

Conservative John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based Pope Foundation, said, “The Trump administration and a good chunk of Capitol Hill has essentially given up on fiscal discipline.”

All about Trump

But Hood said the debate is less about spending than about Trump.

“I believe that this is entirely about Donald Trump,” he said.

John Hood is president of the Pope Foundation in Raleigh.

John Hood

“Most fiscal conservatives voted against the deal,” Hood added. “Robert Pittenger is a fiscal conservative but he voted for the deal because President Trump favored it.… It’s all about Pittenger trying to deny Harris the ability to out-Trump him.”

Andy Yates, Harris’s campaign strategist, said that will be hard to do. Harris, a former Baptist pastor, has blamed Congress for not doing more in the past year to support Trump’s agenda.

“Mark Harris stands with Trump much more than Robert Pittenger does,” Yates said. “And one vote doesn’t change that when you look at the overall record.”

Shumaker, Pittenger’s consultant, said the spending bills reflect a “growing” process by congressional Republicans.

“What you’re witnessing right now is you have a Republican Party that is the party of Donald Trump, and there are going to be growing pains,” he said. “Under (former President Barack) Obama, Republicans were throwing rocks at the president. They have the responsibility of governing now.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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