Politics & Policy

United Fiscal Front

House Speaker Paul Ryan (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Can Republicans stand together on spending?

Members of Congress hate budget drama. But there is budget drama coming.

Representatives and senators of both parties generally dislike voting on budget resolutions, because doing so is an all-pain, no-gain exercise. That is one of the reasons why, for example, the Democrats in 2010 did not pass a budget in spite of their controlling the House, the Senate, and the presidency.

Budget resolutions are like little fiscal Paris Agreements: non-binding statements of policy goals. Members of Congress have to vote for or against a package of spending proposals that is bound to be unpopular with someone, with Democrats fearful of looking like spendthrifts and Republicans shy about grandma-over-the-cliff ads. But budgets don’t actually have any meaningful force of law, and they don’t control how Congress actually spends money. So members of Congress can end up paying a fairly high political price for a vote that in reality amounts to approximately squat.

But there is a way to use budget resolutions to limit spending — budget reconciliation — that some congressional Republicans want to employ in the upcoming budget negotiations.

If you’ll indulge an itty-bitty bit of budget wonkery, here’s what’s happening:

In 1974, a Congress worried about mounting debt and deficits passed the Congressional Budget Act, which, among other things, created a legislative process known as “budget reconciliation,” about which you have heard a great deal in recent years. Reconciliation can be used to expedite certain bills involving taxes, spending, and debt limitation. Reconciliation tends to be popular with the majority party, because reconciliation bills are immune to filibuster. When the Democrats weren’t sure they could get the Affordable Care Act through the Senate, they considered putting it in a budget-reconciliation bill to expedite its passage. (Which they kinda-sorta did and kinda-sorta didn’t.) The process is supposed to make it easier to make Congress behave in a fiscally responsible way.

Results have been mixed at best. Congress is full of congressmen.

There is at the moment a movement afoot among congressional Republicans to use reconciliation in the way it is supposed to be used. Passing a budget resolution does not force the various committees with authority over specific spending items to adopt any particular policy, but including reconciliation directives in the budget can force spending cuts: A reconciliation directive can tell a committee to cut $x out of a certain spending area under its jurisdiction, and that is binding, even if it cannot force the committee to achieve those savings in any particular way. But if the committee’s members cannot agree on a way of meeting their requirements under the reconciliation directive, then legislative rules are invoked that empower the budget committee (House or Senate) to effectively make those decisions for them. It is the only real source of power that the budget committees have at their disposal, which is why being on Ways and Means is a lot more prestigious than being on the House Budget Committee.

What some congressional Republicans are considering is using reconciliation to impose $400 billion to $500 billion in spending cuts, spread out over ten years, to so-called mandatory spending. Usually, “mandatory spending” refers to the big-ticket entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, etc. But because Washington is full of crazy people, Social Security is specifically exempted from the reconciliation process, so that’s off the table. But there is a lot more than the popular retirement entitlements in mandatory spending: There’s also SNAP and TANF and other welfare programs, agriculture subsidies, federal pension and retirement-benefit programs, some grant programs, and much else. Those outlays together add up to an enormous bucket of money, but each of those programs also has a built-in constituency that makes it difficult to impose cuts. It’s the old problem of concentrated benefits vs. dispersed costs: The few thousand people getting big farm-subsidy checks every year will fight a lot harder to keep them than the 300 million people funding those programs will fight to keep the few pennies a year that each of them pays in taxes to support them. While using reconciliation to impose cuts is not universally popular, there are some in Congress who would absolutely love to have reconciliation force them to do the right thing that they don’t have the huevos to do on their own initiative.

The problem is that for a gang of mindlessly conformist right-wing automatons all taking their marching orders from the same cabal of nefarious billionaires, congressional Republicans are an awfully independent-minded bunch, and getting them to agree on a single approach is not easy.

“Some have argued, rightly or wrongly, that over the past five or six years, we haven’t got much done,” says one Hill staffer close to the process. “But we have significantly reduced non-defense discretionary spending.” That’s true: Non-defense discretionary spending has in real terms been cut by about a fifth since 2010. But that category covers only about 19 percent of spending. “Other members may think we can cut further, but discretionary spending is not the driver of the debt. Mandatory spending is. We’ve done our job on discretionary spending, but those with jurisdiction over mandatory spending haven’t.”

The issue is that Republican leaders are afraid that using reconciliation to force cuts to mandatory spending will lead to an ugly political brawl that might endanger what they really want to get done this time around: using reconciliation for tax reform. But some deficit hawks are ready to dig in, and they are reminding the leadership that if the budget fails to get out of committee, then that will imperil tax reform, too. The question is how much of a fight they are willing to put up and how far Republican leaders are ready to go in pursuit of a united front.

Republicans have what may end up being a once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity.

On top of the mandatory-spending issue, there are live disputes about defense and non-defense discretionary spending, too. And it will not be easy for Republicans to work these out, because Republicans — crazy as this may sound — simply do not all agree with one another about spending priorities. There are defense hawks who want to increase military spending by even more than President Trump’s proposed 10 percent hike. There are those who want to push for even deeper cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. And Paul Ryan insists that whatever is in the Republican budget, it will balance in ten years.

Adding to the drama is an undercurrent of urgency: Republicans are in the strongest political position they’ve enjoyed in a century, but they do not expect that to last. They have what may end up being a once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity.

All together, this should make for some fine theater. But if Republicans can figure out a way to stand together on budget priorities, it may amount to a great deal more than that.

– Kevin D. Williamson is NR’s roving correspondent.

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