STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump has now signed a budget compromise ending a brief government shutdown. After failing to meet a midnight deadline, Congress voted early this morning to approve a two-year spending deal, although not without protest. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke up for conservatives unhappy that spending will increase.
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RAND PAUL: I'm not advocating for shutting down the government. I'm also not advocating for keeping the damn thing open and borrowing a million dollars a minute. This is reckless spending that is out of control.
INSKEEP: So that was Rand Paul last night, and this morning, we heard from a guest with a similar view. Akash Chougule is policy director at Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group which is funded by the Koch brothers. He was in our studios in New York City. And we should note that Koch Industries is an occasional sponsor of NPR programming.
What, if anything, is wrong with this spending agreement?
AKASH CHOUGULE: A lot. So this spending agreement blows previously agreed upon spending caps. It is bigger than any two-year nondefense spending request that President Obama ever made. And it brings back corporate welfare tax extenders that had been expired. It's moving in the wrong direction just weeks after Congress passed a really strong and transformative tax reform bill.
INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk about those things together a little bit. Do you intend to punish Republicans in some way who voted for this spending deal?
CHOUGULE: You know, it's a little bit too early to tell in terms of the election cycle. We're only in February, obviously, but we are extremely disappointed. The thing is it was - you know, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was either, you know, as Senator Paul said, voting to worsen Congress', you know, fiscal irresponsibility, budgeting-by-crisis problem or shutting down the government. So there was no good solution to this. And we simply hope that they can get back on regular budget order.
INSKEEP: Well, here's the other aspect of this. One reason that people could be concerned about these spending levels is that the deficit, even in good times, has suddenly gotten much, much bigger than it was in the last years under President Obama. But part of the reason is that tax bill that you mentioned, which Americans for Prosperity supported, which dramatically adds to the deficit. Do you have any credibility expressing concern about that now?
CHOUGULE: Yeah. That's a good question, and we are of the belief that reckless spending causes these massive deficits. Those tax dollars were given back to the people who earned them in the form of a tax cut. The government is far too big. The size and scope of government continues to increase. And the real drivers, to be honest, of our deficit and our national debt aren't these year-to-year discretionary spending items. It's the mandatory spending items that are completely off the table. President Trump has taken them off the table. Neither party has shown a willingness to go after reforms to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, that are really driving the debt. And so we don't believe that giving the American people back more of their own hard-earned money is the main driver of the deficit when Congress' reckless spending habits continue year after year.
INSKEEP: Well, this is interesting. You mention President Trump has effectively taken things like Social Security and Medicare off the table. Now he seems to be likely to sign - we would presume - this budget deal with far more spending than you would like. And maybe this is a moment to ask - many conservatives have stuck by President Trump despite their concerns about his personality or stability or the way that he communicates or any number of things, but they've stuck by him because they like his policies. Do you still like his policies?
CHOUGULE: We like some of them, and we dislike many others, you know. So the changes on the regulatory front are extremely transformative. Putting Justice Gorsuch on the Supreme Court - extremely transformative. Signing the tax reform bill - a massive step in the right direction. But, again, there is so much more that needs to be done in our country to put us on the right path fiscally, to put us on the right path in a 21st-century globalized economy. So there remain concerns, but there have been a lot of significant wins for conservatives that are making our country a better, stronger place to live and to do business and to grow in the 21st century.
INSKEEP: I want to put on the table some sense of where it is that you would like to take the country if lawmakers would take a little more of your advice. You clearly favor tax cuts, and you favored the big tax cut bill a few weeks ago. You really wish spending had also been dramatically restrained. But some people have followed the news from the states of Kansas and Oklahoma where they've tried this. They tried to cut taxes. They thought great prosperity would follow and tax revenue would go up. It didn't happen. And you've got a couple of states where they can barely keep the schools open. Do you want that to happen at the federal level?
CHOUGULE: No, and I think that's a false comparison. So just by way of reference, spending also grew recklessly in Kansas. If they had kept pace with inflation, spending would be a billion dollars lower in Kansas than it is today. The Kansas economy has seen year after year a record business growth, and you can similarly look at a state like North Carolina that has cut billions and billions of dollars in taxes but has kept spending growth below the rate of population plus inflation, which means spending has been at responsible levels while they've been cutting taxes. They have seen year after year after year of hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue and budget surpluses. That is what responsible, conservative governance looks like. And there's no reason we can't do the same thing at the federal level if our lawmakers show the willingness to do so.
INSKEEP: Akash Chougule, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
CHOUGULE: Thanks for having me on.
INSKEEP: He's policy director at the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. NPR's Susan Davis, our congressional correspondent, has been listening along with this. And, Sue, here's a question, a political question, for you - if you have conservatives who are this unhappy with the Republican Party, the Republican leadership, is there a political consequence as we begin an election year?
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: It's so interesting because he said it's too early to tell to know what their group is going to do here. And this is why this happening under President Trump is so interesting because so many of these conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity represent the base. And the base right now still likes President Trump a whole lot more. So what the accountability is going to be here is really hard to predict.
INSKEEP: OK. Sue, thanks very much for all your work throughout the night.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.