‘Boehner Rule’ a Casualty of Murray-Ryan?

by Andrew Stiles

When Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) in 2011, it was supposed to offset a $2.1 trillion debt-ceiling increase with at least $2.4 trillion worth of long-term savings (through 2021). The latter figure was ultimately revised down to $2.1 trillion (including about $1.2 trillion via sequestration) after the supercommittee failed to agree on an alternative plan. 

Some conservatives charge that the Murray-Ryan budget deal announced Tuesday retroactively violates the core premise of the BCA, namely the so-called Boehner Rule, House speaker John Boehner’s (R., Ohio) insistence that every dollar worth of increased borrowing authority be offset by at least one dollar in savings — achieved solely through spending cuts or reforms.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the plan would save a total of $85 billion through 2023. It would also increase spending upfront, by about $62 billion in 2014 and 2015, compared to current law, by rolling back sequestration in those years. That works out to a net deficit reduction of $23 billion through 2023. 

However, more than half of the plan’s total savings ($47 billion of the $85 billion) is achieved in the years 2022 and 2023, which is outside the original BCA window. Through 2021, the plan would only save about $38 billion, split roughly evenly between spending cuts and fee increases. Throw in the $62 billion spending hike in 2014–15, and the plan actually increases the deficit by about $24 billion between now and 2021. If, per the Boehner rule, you count only savings achieved through spending reductions, as opposed to fee increases, that figure rises to almost $45 billion.

This may be small potatoes in the context of a $2.1 trillion package, but a number of Republicans are hesitant to support any agreement that spends beyond the levels outlined in the BCA, especially one that appears to violate the BCA’s promise of a dollar-for-dollar exchange of spending cuts for new borrowing authority, which has already been exhausted. 

Aides supportive of the deal pushed back against this charge, noting that Boehner never specified that savings must occur within a ten-year window. Many long sought GOP entitlement reforms, for example, would generate considerable long-term savings, but relatively little in the first ten years. “We’ve always said there is a smarter way to cut spending than President Obama’s sequester — that was the idea behind the Sequester Replacement Act in 2012, and the budget agreement we will vote on today,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.