Politics & Policy

The Black Budget

Rep. Diane Black on Capitol Hill in July (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
House Republicans face one major obstacle on mandatory spending: Senate Republicans

Diane Black’s political problem — conservatives’ political problem — is America’s political problem: Tax cuts are popular, and spending cuts are not.

Representative Black (R., Tenn.) has been chairman of the House Budget Committee for about a year, and she’s enjoyed the experience so much that she’s . . . trying to get the hell out of Washington, hoping to head to Nashville as Tennessee’s next governor. (She declined to comment on the gubernatorial race.) It is difficult to blame her for not wanting to cling to that gavel: Running the House Budget Committee is kind of a stupid job.

Not that it’s an unimportant job — far from it: In fact, it is a critically important post. A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Republicans on the House Budget Committee, and I told them as plainly as I could that the decisions made by their panel and its Senate counterpart over the next several years would very likely mean the difference between a relatively manageable national fiscal crisis at some point in the future and an uncontrollable national fiscal catastrophe with worldwide consequences. I also told them that I was not entirely confident that they’d make the right choices. I wasn’t invited back.

Getting fiscal policy right is — should be — a top-tier priority. But the congressional budget committees are, strangely enough, a frustrating base of operations for doing that.

The problem for fiscal hawks on the budget committees is that the budget covers only about one-third of all federal spending, the “discretionary” outlays, which are subject to the appropriations process. The other two-thirds of the budget is so-called mandatory spending: Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements, farm programs, interest on the debt, etc. Entitlements are called entitlements because, under the law, recipients are legally entitled to certain benefits as determined by statute. Congressional budget writers cannot simply knock 5 percent off of Social Security in the next year’s budget — if you want to change what’s spent on an entitlement, you have to change the law, not just the budget.

Representative Black, whose work on this year’s budget resolution has been rightly praised, is offering up some $200 billion in cuts to mandatory spending. That’s not a lot, but it isn’t nothing, either. The cost-saving measures include a lot of Republican chestnuts, for example putting a time limit and work requirements (“work” being rather loosely defined) on food stamps for able-bodied adults without dependents. It would enact money-saving reforms to the Social Security disability program and eliminate the cost of enforcing the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law by gutting the law. It would increase military spending, putting an additional budget-balancing burden on the domestic side.

The House plan purports to balance the budget in ten years, a claim that is, let’s say, aspirational. If ten years from now the budget is balanced, no one will be better pleased than I, or more surprised.

The House plan purports to balance the budget in ten years, a claim that is, let’s say, aspirational.

The House budget also includes “reconciliation instructions” for deficit-neutral tax reform. Translated from the Washingtonian, that means that if the budget is enacted not through regular legislative order but through the reconciliation process — which it almost certainly will be — then any tax reform that makes it into the final deal has to be designed in such a way that it does not add to the deficit.

The Senate has other plans. The upper chamber wants to enact massive tax cuts that would add $1.5 trillion — note the “T” — to the deficit. And Senate Budget Committee chairman Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.) is doing his best Doctor Evil impersonation, offering mandatory spending cuts of one . . . billion . . . dollars, i.e. about twelve hours’ worth of Medicare spending. The House budget is all about reducing mandatory spending; the Senate budget is all about tax cuts — it’s the spoonful of sugar without the medicine.

“We have a floor of $203 billion,” Black says. “We would like to do more. We didn’t just throw a number out there; we worked with the committees of jurisdiction to find what they’re comfortable with. But if we could do this year after year and use reconciliation to actually reform programs that haven’t been looked at in 40 years, then we can save.”

Black is expecting a pretty good brawl. “The Senate budget is going to be . . . different from ours,” she says. “There’s going to be a battle over deficit reduction. We’ll defend what we did in our bill.”

Black is open to the Senate’s argument for goosing the economy through supply-side sugar-high tax cuts but insists “there’s got to be some constraint on the other end.” Her advice is the sort of thing that used to be bipartisan conventional wisdom but is now the stuff of fiscal radicalism: “Don’t spend more than you take in.”

The best-case scenario would be giving the Senate its $1.5 trillion in tax cuts matched by $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. The worst-case scenario would be passing that sweet tax cut without even nodding at the House’s $200 billion in mandatory-spending cuts. What’s actually going to happen is impossible to say, especially with the loose cannon in the White House in the mix.

What’s under way here is a contest of three distinct Republican visions: In the House, Diane Black is offering up an old-fashioned bottom-line Republicanism, reform this year, next year, the year after, and beyond; in the Senate, they’re hoping that a massive tax cut will resuscitate the Growth Faerie, who will sprinkle upon Washington the magic dust in which hard decisions are wondrously dissolved; and the White House is offering up President Trump’s usual incoherent content-free populism, a combination of gimmicky showmanship and wishful thinking.

Which way the Republican party goes on the budget will say a great deal about the way the Republican party is going in general.

READ MORE:

The GOP Is Hogtied by a Divided Senate

Congress’s Continuing Self-Degradation

The Future of Congressional Supremacy

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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