Budget plan passed, now what?

When a bill is voted on in Congress, members can only vote for or against it. In many cases, their true feelings about the matter at the hand may be somewhere in between.

Voting against a bill, for example, does not necessarily signify disapproval. It may mean the bill was a step in the right direction but didn’t go far enough. Consider the Senate vote last week on a bill to require that any nuclear agreement with Iran would be subject to congressional approval. The tally was 98-1, with the dissenting vote being cast by
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR).

Senator Cotton’s point was not that Congress should have no say in whatever deal may emerge from the current negotiations; indeed, he has been a very vocal critic of the administration’s attempt to avoid congressional oversight of the matter. He insisted that any such deal would be a “treaty” requiring Senate ratification, however, and not (as claimed by the administration) an “executive agreement.” Therefore, according to Cotton, the bill would effectively turn the rules upside down by requiring a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress to override an assumed presidential veto of a vote to disapprove a deal instead of affirmative approval of the deal by 2/3 of the Senate before it could take effect. Press release,
5/7/15.

Other senators probably agreed with Cotton in principle, as do we, but thought the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act was the best legislation they could get without fracturing the fragile bipartisan consensus to rein in the president. Attention now shifts to the House of Representatives, where conservatives will offer amendments to stiffen the bill. House Speaker John Boehner et al. are committed to getting the bill passed in its present form, and they will seek to thwart this effort without appearing heavy-handed. House conservatives target Iran nuclear deal, Lauren French & Jake Sherman, politico.com,
5/8/15.

Or take the voting on the congressional budget resolution, which the House passed (226-197) on
April 30 and the Senate passed (51-48) on May 5.

What was the intent of the members who voted for and against the CB? And more importantly, how are they likely to vote on spending bills that are in synch with it?


1. Budget resolution – One might reasonably infer that the members of Congress who voted for a balanced budget within 10 years are more fiscally conservative than their colleagues who voted against it. If the budget isn’t going to be balanced by 2025, after all, why should anyone expect it to ever be balanced?

But not so fast! Some of the CB supporters (all Republicans) are fiscal conservatives, no doubt, but others probably followed suit for reasons of political expediency (failing to pass the CB would have left the GOP looking hopelessly disorganized) and may show their true colors when actual spending is on the line.

Contrariwise, the Republicans who broke ranks (14 representatives and 2 senators) are not necessarily indifferent to the fiscal problem. Some of them are certifiable fiscal conservatives (see examples below), who felt the CB wouldn’t cut spending deeply enough. As discussed last week, that’s not a hard case to make. The budget process grinds on,
5/4/15.

•Senator Rand Paul was the only member of Congress who responded to SAFE’s
6/3/13 letter urging that Congress balance the budget within 3 years and then keep it that way. In so doing, he cited specific proposals for fixing the fiscal problem, and noted that our suggestions seemed to be generally consistent with his approach. We can only wish that more of his colleagues were on the same wavelength.

My 2014 budget plan, A Clear Vision to Revitalize America, would restore the fiscal sanity we so desperately need by reducing our debt burden, cutting wasteful and duplicative spending, eliminating unnecessary regulations, replacing the tax code with a fair and viable flat tax, and halting the growth of America’s massive unfunded liabilities. *** It appears that several of your suggestions are in line with my proposal, and I will consider your ideas further as I introduce further legislation.

•Senator Ted Cruz’s vote against the CB was in line with his previous vote against the Senate budget plan, which he criticized for projecting budget balance based on gimmicks. Unfortunately, these points are well taken. Senate budget votes foretell 2016 fight, David Drucker, Washington Examiner, 4/1/16.

Given the gravity of the debt facing our children and grandchildren, I believe that Americans expect us to do more. We need meaningful entitlement reforms, without budget gimmicks, and I cannot support a budget that claims to balance in the year 2025 by utilizing revenue increases generated by Obamacare taxes [i.e., repealing this legislation while keeping the associated tax increases].

Not a single Democratic member of Congress voted for the CB. Does this mean they don’t support a return to fiscal responsibility, or – like Senators Paul and Cruz – were some of them expressing their desire for a stronger approach?

SAFE asked about the apparent opposition to balancing the budget in a
5/6/15 letter to the three members of Congress from Delaware (all Democrats). It was hoped that our inquiry might encourage them to show some leadership in the forthcoming voting on spending bills. No responses to date, but if any are received they will be duly posted.

2. Spending bills – House Republicans hoped to kick off this phase of the exercise by passing a noncontroversial spending bill for military construction and veteran affairs. A vote was postponed at the last minute, however, due to concerns that “a Democratic amendment to blow up the legislation actually stood a chance of passing with GOP support.” House will struggle to pass spending bills that adhere to caps, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 5/4/15.

Although Democrats characterized the bill as niggardly, it would have increased existing spending levels. Moreover, the proposed amounts were only marginally lower than those requested in the president’s budget proposal – with the exception of not doubling construction funds for new VA facilities (a counterintuitive move in light of past VA failures). Nancy Pelosi pretends GOP cutting veteran funds, Mark Home, politicaloutcast.com,
5/6/15.

The president’s budget asked for double the current funding for construction projects, but the committee rejected it. [VA Secretary Robert] McDonald said the House bill would halt major medical center projects and cemetery expansion efforts. But the committee said it is “seriously disturbed” by recent findings of mismanagement of a VA construction project in Colorado that has run more than $1 billion over budget.

There is no serious disagreement about the level of the VA budget or the need to provide appropriate support for veterans. The problems that developed at the Veterans Administration were due to administrative mismanagement and/or the inherent inefficiency of government-run healthcare facilities, not inadequate funding. Thoughts about the VA scandal, 5/26/14.

What’s really at stake is the administration’s demand that congressional Republicans agree to lift the sequester budget caps for all nondefense spending, as has been effectively done for the defense budget by ramping up the reserve for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The budget process grinds on,
5/4/15 (part III, major issues: sequestration).

This line of attack was sharpened last week in testimony by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. He warned that the president will veto spending bills that permit OCO money to be shifted to other defense purposes in a way that could result in shortchanging nondefense programs. (Seems like a rather odd point to be made by the defense chief.) Obama threatens veto of defense funding shift, Bill Gertz, Washington Times,
5/6/15.

Mr. Carter, in his testimony, said the OCO approach “is clearly a road to nowhere” because it “ignores the vital contributions made by the State, Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security departments.” “Legislation that implements this budget framework will therefore be subject to veto,” he testified.

It has been suggested that there should be a negotiation to resolve the disagreement about spending caps, perhaps along the lines of the talks between Senator Patty Murray & Representative Paul Ryan that resulted in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. House will struggle to pass spending bills, op. cit., 5/4/15.

This approach probably averted a second government shutdown in 2013, at a time when Republicans were in a jam, but the immediate effect was to increase the deficit for 2014-15 by $56B and the agreed offsets were heavily back-end loaded. What’s more, spending limits were only agreed to on an overall basis, so appropriators still had to divvy up the spoils. It’s hard to see why such an exercise should be repeated this year, effectively kicking the fiscal can down the road again. Time to get serious about budgeting, 1/20/14.

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Furthermore, why did Republicans go to the trouble of passing the CB if they intended to abandon it as soon as the administration started issuing veto threats? The president’s intentions were clear from the get go, so the developing disagreement should not come as a surprise.

Granted, however, that it will be tough for Congress to pass spending bills by the October 1 deadline (following its own budget procedures for the first time in goodness knows how long) if either party refuses to cooperate. House will struggle to pass spending bills, op. cit.,
5/4/15.

Congress each year has stumbled in its attempt to pass individual spending bills, with nearly all Democrats and many Republicans unwilling to endorse legislation that includes significant cuts. [The result has been] last-minute deals to pass giant spending bills that encompass all or many parts of the government in legislation known as "omnibus" bills, usually passed with just minutes to spare before the government shuts down for lack of renewed funding. The same could happen this year if the spending bills stall, [House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-KY] said.

What’s likely to happen, and is another “government shutdown” in the making? Our crystal ball is a little cloudy, but it wouldn’t hurt to start telling the nation’s political leaders that “we the people” are tired of all the wasteful spending that is going on and think the CB is a minimum adequate (versus draconian) response to the problem. If enough people make this point, maybe they will start listening.

As for where to cut, SAFE has offered plenty of money-saving ideas over the years. See the
Spending page of this website.

There are many other good sources, such as the Citizens Against Government Waste website.

And here’s a report that is just out. In addition to citing some outrageous examples of pork barrel spending, such as research on bomb sniffing elephants and pollution from backyard barbequing, it suggests that the congressional appropriations system is breaking down due to haphazard administration. America’s Most Wasted, Senator John McCain,
2015.

America’s Most Wasted highlights questionable Washington spending habits
totaling $1.1 billion. The report also identifies at least $294 billion in spending on
programs that are no longer authorized to receive funding due to Congress’s
persistent unwillingness to pass authorization bills and oversee the spending that
follows. At a time when Americans’ disapproval of government is at an all-time
high, it has never been more important to reign-in [sic] spending and put our fiscal
house back in order.


3. One more thing – As discussed last week, there are serious questions about the idea of using the reconciliation process to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Budget savings unclear – veto certain (with no chance of an override) – hard to know how public would react. The budget process grinds on, 5/4/15 (part III, major issues: GovCare).

It now appears that this gambit won’t be attempted until after the Supreme Court decides King v. Burwell in late June, and will be tailored to fit the situation if the Supreme Court rules that the IRS erred in recognizing tax credits for millions of Americans who purchased healthcare insurance plans on federal (versus state) exchanges. Congress passes first budget in six years, Tom Howell, Washington Times,
5/5/15.

The budget also instructs Congress to use a fast-track procedure, known as “reconciliation,” to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Using the budget can help Republicans avoid a Senate filibuster — though not a presidential veto. How the powerful tool is employed could be dictated by whether the Supreme Court this June strikes down Obamacare’s subsidies in dozens of states, a decision that would severely weaken the law and give the GOP leverage. “It’s not going to be used until after the Supreme Court rules,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said.

The outcome of King v. Burwell remains unpredictable (except we would bet on a 5-4 decision), and there have been a number of suggestions as to how the GOP should react if the ruling goes against the government. (The president and his supporters would tout a simple amendment to the Affordable Care Act designed to correct a supposed drafting error.) What to expect when the Supreme Court rules on GovCare again, 3/16/15.

Still, it’s possible that the GOP could capitalize on a government setback in this situation by introducing legislation that would “fix the problem” (avoid invalidating tax credits for the people concerned) in return for some constructive tweaks to the ACA – and that the president would refrain from vetoing the bill.

Such a plan would require the Republicans to act with more unity than they usually do, which may be too much to hope for, but it seems like a better bet than trying to repeal GovCare, knowing this can’t be done under the current president, just to make a point.

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The left will NEVER agree to spending cuts. Remember President Reagan’s lack of success in that regard. – SAFE director
The budget was balanced in President Clinton’s second term.

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