Republicans launched their opening salvo last week in what promises to be an epic standoff over the federal budget. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) released a proposal to return non-security spending to 2008 levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, in keeping with the GOP’s “Pledge to America,” and already both sides are raising a fuss.
To start, there is some disagreement — and some confusion — over exactly how much is being cut. When Republicans “pledged” to cut $100 billion from the budget for fiscal year 2011, they used President Obama’s proposal as the baseline. Since then, several factors have complicated the GOP’s efforts to keep that promise.
First of all, last year’s Democratic Congress never passed a budget, and the continuing resolution that did go into effect actually reduced spending compared to Obama’s numbers. That resolution covers nearly half of the fiscal year, so strictly speaking, to fulfill the pledge, Republicans will have to squeeze $100 billion worth of cuts into the remaining seven-month period (March through September).
Instead, GOP leaders have settled on cutting a prorated amount. Within that time frame, Ryan’s proposal eliminates $58 billion in non-defense spending compared to the president’s request, or $43 billion compared to the continuing resolution’s levels. Either way, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) says that the cuts “absolutely live up to the commitment” of the pledge, and that by this time next year, Republicans will have realized “well over $100 billion in savings.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Members of the House’s conservative Republican Study Committee, who had urged party leadership in an open letter not to shirk the $100 billion commitment, don’t believe that Ryan’s numbers are sufficient. Some feel that an additional $42 billion was left on the table. Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who recently proposed his own budget that would cut federal non-defense spending by $500 billion, questioned whether his GOP colleagues in the House were “brave enough” to follow through on deeper, necessary cuts.
House conservatives, though frustrated, are not discouraged. They were hardly surprised to see the number come in below $100 billion, for Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) had hinted at that outcome for some time. Few, if any, have openly criticized party leaders, and many remain optimistic. “I think it’s a good start, but it’s not where we need to be,” RSC chairman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) says. “We need to get to 100.”
And that’s exactly what Jordan plans to do. When Republicans begin drafting a new continuing resolution — using Ryan’s numbers — to replace the current one, which expires on March 4, Jordan and other RSC members will immediately offer an amendment lopping an extra $42 billion in non-security spending.
To their credit, Jordan tells National Review Online, party leaders have promised an open amendment process. “We’ve heard nothing but positive statements frnonm leadership,” he says. Still, Boehner and Cantor have been careful to specify that they support “a vote” on further spending cuts, not necessarily the cuts themselves.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a noted fiscal hawk, is a little more candid in his frustration. “We promised to cut $100 billion and I think that’s what we should do,” he says bluntly — not least because Republican credibility is on the line. “If we can’t cut $100 billion here and now, I don’t think anybody is going to have any real faith in us moving forward,” Flake says. “That’s what I worry about.”
Flake tells National Review Online that he expects party leaders will ultimately vote for the RSC amendment, but he’s “a little puzzled” as to why they didn’t offer $100 billion in cuts to begin with. Why not set the bar high and allow members who wanted to cut less offer their own amendments? “Most of us would have preferred to start with $100 billion and go from there,” he says.
For his part, Ryan simply brushes the criticism aside, insisting that more cuts are on the way in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, which begins this October 1. “If anyone thinks we’re afraid to cut $100 billion, they’ve got another think coming,” he has said on multiple occasions. “The notion that this is the extent of House Republicans’ appetite for spending cuts is demonstrably false,” his spokesman Conor Sweeney says. “This is only the beginning.”
If anything, Ryan welcomes the debate, because Republicans have — in unprecedented fashion — successfully shifted the conversation from a question of “Should we cut?” to “How much should we cut?” Cantor stressed this very point at a weekly session with reporters on Tuesday. “We said we were going to change the culture in Washington,” he said. “And I don’t think any of us can remember a time in which we were really bickering about the levels of spending cuts.” Indeed, it is a new reality that even Democrats are forced to acknowledge, however grudgingly.
And boy, have they begrudged. While Ryan’s Republican colleagues were complaining that his cuts didn’t go far enough, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) was dismissing them as “draconian” and “unworkable.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Ryan’s “drastic cuts” were “a step in the wrong direction, at the wrong time.”
In the same breath, Democrats are (quite disingenuously) attacking the GOP for failing to meet its $100 billion pledge. “They’re breaking the very promises they made to get elected,” Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “House Republicans pledged big budget cuts to get the support of their new tea-party fueled freshmen, and now those pledges appear not worth the paper they were printed on.” In short: Republicans can’t keep their word, but either way their budget cuts will reduce us all to characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
For many House Republicans, though, passing a continuing resolution containing $100 billion worth of cuts is just the beginning. Any GOP proposal that passes the House will face firm resistance in the Democrat-controlled Senate, setting up the first of many showdowns on spending. Looming battles over the 2012 budget and the vote to raise the federal-debt ceiling are expected to be just as contentious, if not more so. Given the fervid rhetoric coming from both sides, an agreeable compromise seems unlikely anytime soon. This has fueled buzz, or in some cases, fearmongering, about a potential government shutdown if both sides refuse to budge.
House GOP aides insist that a shutdown is not a realistic option, but at the same time, Republicans will not simply roll over and accept whatever plan the Democrats send back to them. As far as the RSC members are concerned, the goal is to start with the highest possible bid — $100 billion (or higher) — in order to increase pressure on the White House and Senate Democrats to support stricter spending measures.
Jordan is confident that, given the midterm-election results, the public is eager to see meaningful action on the spending front. “The American people have figured out how serious the situation is,” he says. “What we want is for [Democrats] to recognize how serious the situation is.”
That goes for Republicans, too.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.