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Commentary By Brian Riedl

Sixty Hours of GOP Dysfunction on Spending

Economics, Economics Tax & Budget, Tax & Budget

This is the unified government that conservatives spent a decade working towards?

Here is the portrait of a dysfunctional party: On Tuesday, the House Republicans unveiled a budget that set a goal of spending cuts totaling $6,454 billion. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans defeated legislation to cut spending by $1 billion. On Thursday, House Republicans voted to renew $20 billion per year in farm subsidies.

The 2018 GOP talks like Barry Goldwater and spends like Lyndon Johnson.

Start with the House budget resolution. It promises to balance the budget by 2027 by: 1) cutting spending $6.5 trillion over the decade; 2) assuming $1.7 trillion in automatic savings from faster economic growth than the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects; and 3) assuming much of the recent tax cut expires after 2025. That final assumption contradicts stated Republican policy, which does not matter because none of this is real.

We’ve seen all this before. Since the Republicans took the House in 2011, nearly every annual budget blueprint has promised to balance the budget within a decade with anywhere from $5 trillion to $8 trillion in spending cuts. And yet, you may have noticed, the budget has not moved towards balance.This is because the budget merely sets a broad fiscal goal. To actually cut spending, Congress must follow up with specific legislation to reform Medicare, Medicaid, and all the other targeted programs. In reality, most lawmakers who pass these budgets have no intention whatsoever of cutting this spending. As soon as the budget is passed, the targets are forgotten. The spending-cut legislation is never even drafted, much less voted on.

The annual budget exercise is thus a cynical exercise in symbolism. Congress calculates how much spending must be cut over ten years to balance the budget. Then they pass legislation setting a goal of cutting that amount. Then they move on to other business. It’s like a baseball team announcing that they voted to win the next World Series, and then not showing up to play the season.

So why bother? For the political theater. Republicans can send out press releases bragging about voting to balance the budget. The Left and the media can hyperventilate over the viciousness of cutting $6 trillion from programs that families depend on.

For actual spending cuts to occur, Congress typically must attach “reconciliation instructions” that require the committees of jurisdiction to do their jobs and draft the spending-cut legislation. The January 2017 budget included reconciliation instructions to repeal Obamacare. Congress failed to pass the repeal.

Later in 2017, House Republicans unveiled a budget that promised (on paper) to balance the budget with $5.4 trillion in spending cuts over the decade. But though the original blueprint also contained language to “reconcile” $203 billion of these cuts — as in actually cut 4 percent of what they had promised — Republicans later stripped that requirement. They wanted to tell constituents they voted for a balanced budget, while in reality refusing to cut even 0.3 percent of spending.

The new House budget would reconcile $302 billion out of the $6.5 trillion in cuts. That way, only 95 percent of the promised spending cuts would be an empty gimmick. Yet the Senate has already made clear that even this is a non-starter.

The budget resolution does serve a few purposes. It sets the discretionary-spending target for the following year. It can include minor rule changes. And the powerful reconciliation process — which allows spending and tax legislation to pass the Senate without being filibustered — was used to pass last year’s tax cuts.

“It is no wonder that conservative voters are cynical.”

But cutting taxes is the easy part. Without spending restraint, no tax cuts can be sustained.

And that brings us to the “rescission” bill. It would have cancelled $15 billion in spending authority, of which only $1.3 billion was ever going to be spent anyway. (The rest was expired or no longer necessary.) Rescinding those expired funds prevents congressional spenders from later using them as a fake offset for new spending — which happened as recently as this past March.

As expected, Democrats unanimously voted no after several lawmakers blatantly lied that the bill would cut the Children’s Health Insurance Program (the CBO certified that not a dollar in benefits would be cut). Many in the media repeated this lie.

Nevertheless, the GOP congressional majority could not pass the rescission. After 19 House Republicans nearly sank the bill, it died in the Senate when Senators Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) voted with the Democrats to defeat it. Senator Burr told reporters he cast the deciding vote because “it cut $16 million out of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Period, end of sentence.”

So there you have it. A party that brags about theoretically supporting $6,454,000 million in spending cuts balks at actually cutting $16 million. Earlier this year, the same party replaced its hard-fought discretionary-spending caps with a spending blowout that will likely cost $1.5 trillion over the decade. And then on Thursday, House Republicans voted to continue spending $20 billion annually on welfare for large agribusinesses. No net cuts at all.

It is no wonder that conservative voters are cynical. This is the unified Republican control of government they spent a decade working towards.

This piece originally appeared on National Review Online


Brian M. Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he worked for six years as chief economist to Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and as staff director of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth. Follow him on Twitter here

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online