There is no easy way to resolve this budget battle

Extensive feedback was received from readers (posted at end of the entry).

Hours before the start of fiscal year 2016, Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government operating normally through December 11 and provide time for further negotiations. Obama signs spending bill, averting partial government shutdown, foxnews.com, 9/30/15.

GOP leaders were apparently willing to reopen the previously approved budget resolution for fiscal year 2016 and permit some relaxation of the sequestration (budget caps) on discretionary spending. They envisioned a spending level deal that would extend until after the 2016 elections. GOP, Obama in talks for two-year budget bill, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,
9/29/15.

It wasn’t clear that GOP members of the House were on the same page. Indeed, 151 of them voted against the CR in its final form (ex a provision to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood). The CR passed 277-151, but only with strong Democratic support.
Thomas legislative site (search for House roll call 528).

On October 1, the Treasury Department advised that its ability to operate within an $18.1 trillion debt limit through the use of “extraordinary measures” (deferring contributions to government-funded pension plans, etc.) was nearly used up so it would soon be forced to start deferring normal operating outlays unless the debt limit was raised. Similar warnings had been issued previously, but this was the first one to cite a specific deadline date (November 5). Debt limit letter to Congress,
10/1/15 (download PDF).

At an Oct. 2 press conference, the president said he wasn’t going to negotiate about a debt limit increase or sign any more short-term spending bills. It was time for Congress to (a) do the necessary on the debt limit, and (b) agree to higher spending levels. The second point was reiterated in the president’s weekly address on
Oct. 3.

[The CR] only sets up another shutdown threat two weeks before Christmas. *** It just kicks the can down the road without solving any problems or doing any long-term planning for the future. And that’s why I will not sign another shortsighted, short-term spending bill like the one Congress sent me this week.

So are congressional Republicans on their way to another surrender? We hope not, because there are some crucial issues at stake. But to have any chance of prevailing on these issues, the GOP will need to play its cards more shrewdly than it has been doing lately. Some suggestions follow.

I. Abolish the debt limit – In theory, the debt limit provides leverage in resisting government deficits. Certainly the limit will be raised in the end, goes the logic, but concessions can be extracted for doing so. If the president declines to negotiate, however, as the current president has done since 2011, Congress will be seen as having made an empty threat. That’s not a formula for winning political disputes.

Here’s a case in which a Republican leader who cited the debt limit increase as an opportunity to extract spending cuts was left looking rather foolish. White House to [Rep. Jason] Chaffetz: Don’t “monkey” with the US credit rating, Nicole Duran, Washington Examiner,
10/5/15.

"There's significant risk associated with monkeying around with the debt limit, and using it as a, you know, as a, essentially, a political football in the midst of a contested leadership race, I think, would satisfy the requirements of describing something as 'monkeying around,'" White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Some may believe a debt limit has symbolic value, in that periodic increases will remind Americans that the government is mismanaging its fiscal affairs. The debt limit is back; why that’s a good thing, Romina Boccia, dailysignal.com,
10/5/15.

Confronting lawmakers with the result of irresponsible spending decisions is one main benefit of the debt limit. Lawmakers don’t spend enough time acknowledging Washington’s spending addiction, and the debt limit reminds them.

There are other ways to demonstrate fiscal mismanagement, however, such as tracking deficits, debt growth, or the average debt share of US citizens (see the linked
chart).

Whatever symbolic value the debt limit once had was compromised, moreover, by allowing said limit to rise freely for over a year before reinstating it on 3/15/15. Blank check: what it means to suspend the debt limit, Romina Boccia, Heritage.org,
2/14/14.

Periodic use of “extraordinary measures” by the Treasury Department to stay within the debt limit sows confusion as to what’s happening to the debt on a realistic (ex extraordinary measures) basis. The following table (compiled on 10/10/15) is illustrative; while Treasury is displaying the official (fudged) number, the private website is apparently trying to approximate the real number.

TOTAL DEBT - $ BILLIONS
http://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/debt/current $18,150
http://www.usdebtclock.org $18,402


The most effective way to balance the budget is to cut spending in the first instance, not to set a debt limit and then propose remedial action when the limit becomes inadequate and has to be raised. If the budget is balanced every year, as it should be, the debt level will basically take care of itself.

In sum, the debt limit should be abolished. That doesn't mean steadily rising debt is OK, but a debt limit isn’t an effective way to prevent it. Other tools are available and should be used to rein in government spending.

II. Establish a systematic budgeting approach – Overall spending restrictions (caps, freezes, or across-the-board cuts) never work well or last long. To cut spending and make the cuts stick, one must identify and eliminate or shrink government programs/activities that are not justifiable on a realistic cost vs. benefit basis.

The main obstacle to targeted spending cuts is mustering the political will to get the job done. Witness the success of the New Zealand government, several decades ago, in finding ways to substantially improve operations while spending a lot less money. SAFE sponsoring [Maurice] McTigue, Jerry Martin, SAFE newsletter
Spring & Summer 2001.

Earlier this year, Congress passed its first budget resolution since
2009. Spending wasn’t cut fast enough to suit us, but at least the projection called for a balanced budget within 10 years (albeit partly achieved by repealing GovCare without eliminating the associated taxes) whereas the president’s budget proposal had assumed that deficits would continue indefinitely. Budget plan passed, now what? 5/11/15.

The next step, we thought, was for Congress to develop detailed appropriation bills before October 1 instead of once again beginning the fiscal year with an across-the-board CR that treated all spending programs as of equal merit (an obviously false premise).

A respectable effort was made, but it stalled when Democrats began filibustering appropriation bills in the Senate. Their contention was that the budget resolution was unfair because the president had not approved it, or something like that, and therefore that sequestration (budget caps) for discretionary spending must be adjusted before any appropriation bills could be approved. Another budget shutdown looms,
8/17/15.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at Appropriation Bills

Our suggestion was that Congress should get back to work on the appropriation bills. “Given some attitude adjustments on both sides of the aisle,” we opined, “it should be possible to get the job done (in September if possible, but a short-term CR could be passed if time ran out despite good faith efforts). DC update: three big battles in September, 8/31/15.

Nothing happened, however, and the status of appropriation bills remains as previously shown. Appropriations for fiscal year 2016, congress.gov, 10/8/15 (download PDF).

But wait, what about HR 1735, “The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016,” which was passed by the Senate last week and sent to the president for signature? Senate OKs massive defense bill under veto threat, foxnews.com,
10/7/15.

HR 1735 is a policy bill, however, which authorizes consideration of an appropriations bill for $612 billion but doesn’t appropriate any money itself. And if the president vetoes HR 1735 (no action has been taken to date), it may be tough to get enough votes (2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate) for an override. Accordingly, the filibuster firewall against appropriation bills remains in full force and effect. Defense policy the newest battleground in budget fight, Charles Hoskinson, Washington Examiner,
10/8/15.

The $38 billion that's at the center of the dispute won't actually be spent unless it's included in the annual appropriations bill. And Democrats have bottled that up in the Senate along with all the other fiscal 2016 spending measures, demanding that Republicans agree to negotiate on lifting all the caps.

One way to break the appropriation bill logjam would be for Senate Democrats to start showing greater restraint in invoking the filibuster, but that may be too much to hope for. Alternatively, Senate Republicans could “go nuclear” and abolish the filibuster.

When we first suggested consideration of the nuclear option, it wasn’t being much talked about by anyone except SAFE and Charles Krauthammer. Something’s got to give in the US Senate,
2/23/15.

More people are now getting on the bandwagon, including House conservatives (e.g., Raul Labrador, Vern Buchanan) and presidential candidates (e.g., Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich). The point seems to be sinking in that there is a raft of serious problems in Washington and Congress isn’t able to do much about any of them under the current ground rules because there aren’t 60 votes in the Senate for action. Filibusted, Kurt Schlichter, townhall.com,
10/6/15.

Obama uses the filibuster, with the aid of his Senate minority minions, as a way to prevent accountability. By refusing to allow a vote on any issue Obama disapproves of, the Democrats are able to leverage the slobbering assistance of their mainstream media friends into placing the blame for a “dysfunctional” Congress onto the GOP despite the fact that the only people preventing the Congress from passing anything are the Democrats.

Many continue to argue that the filibuster should be preserved, however, lest Republicans suffer great damage the next time they are the minority party in Congress. It’s also pointed out that the benefit from ending the filibuster would be limited as the president could still veto legislation he didn’t like (albeit at the price of taking personal responsibility therefor). Senior GOP senator [Senator Chuck Grassley]: Keep the filibuster, we’ll need it again someday, Byron York, Washington Examiner,
10/7/15.

. . . what would conservatives gain by abolishing the filibuster? In the short run, we would have the emotional satisfaction of seeing President Obama have to use his veto pen, but that's about it. In the long run, you can bet that modern day progressives will use those tools to impose all sorts of policies to expand the scope of government that would otherwise not make it through our constitutional system.

There is a bill being crafted in the House to repeal crucial parts of the GovCare legislation (notably the individual mandate) and defund Planned Parenthood for at least one year. It’s contemplated that a filibuster would be avoided by using the “reconciliation process,” so the bill would get to the president’s desk.

The technical requirements for the reconciliation process are complicated, however, and it would be tough to explain what was being done in a way that didn’t sound devious. Current plans are to use this process only once – basically as a sop to House conservatives - with a presidential veto being a foregone conclusion. GOP budget maneuver: Obamacare, Planned Parenthood kill tactic, Paige Winfield Cunningham, Washington Examiner,
10/9/15.

Senate Republicans are expected to pass some version of the bill, although the Senate may strip out some parts if they're not deemed to fall under the jurisdiction of a reconciliation bill. But Obama is expected to veto it, halting the effort before it can become law.

All things considered, we think Republicans would do better to abolish the filibuster and start moving appropriation bills and other legislation that the administration might not favor than to engage in a meaningless symbolic exercise or stand idly by while the US Congress continues transforming into a ceremonial rubber stamp for decisions made by the executive branch.

III. Reclaim the power of the purse – Assume this scenario, which would be consistent with the foregoing discussion:

Republicans introduce a bill to abolish the debt limit; it moves swiftly through Congress and is signed into law – so much for the November 5 deadline for action on this matter. Republicans also serve notice that they won’t renegotiate the congressional budget resolution and call on Senate Democrats to stop filibustering appropriation bills instead of working on them in the normal fashion. Senate Democrats refuse to change their behavior, so Senate Republicans abolish the filibuster. Appropriation bills start getting passed and sent to the president for signature. The president vetoes each and every one of them on grounds that they allow for less spending than he wants. The CR is set to expire on December 12.

At that point, we would suggest, Republicans should attribute the impending shutdown to the president and call on him to reconsider. If the president maintained course there would be a shutdown, and the American public could decide whom to blame for it.

Some observers might advise otherwise, contending that Republicans should focus on demonstrating their readiness to govern versus picking fights they can’t hope to win. Republican Party’s big question: to fight or to govern? Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal,
10/9/15

The turbulence that is rocking the Republican Party today—turbulence that has turned the presidential campaign upside down, compelled a House speaker to retire and persuaded both of his logical replacements [Kevin McCarthy or Paul Ryan so far] to step away—can be traced to one giant, unresolved question. Is the party’s mission to crusade passionately and even angrily for unadulterated conservative principles right now, or is it to more calmly convince voters that conservatives can govern effectively for the long run?

There comes in point in war, politics or life itself, however, when equivocation will not suffice and people must declare where they stand. So here’s the question: Does Congress have “the power of the purse” or doesn’t it, and if not how are its members supposed to make a difference?

Consider a recent column arguing that the congressional lawsuit against the executive branch for making payments not provided by the Affordable Care Act (GovCare) or otherwise authorized by Congress should have been dismissed because, among other things, Congress could have prevailed by denying funding. A dangerous Obamacare lawsuit, Irvin Nathan (former general counsel of the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2010), Washington Post,
10/4/15.

But appropriations for future payments are peculiarly the province and responsibility of Congress. *** The two houses of Congress are quite able to prohibit (or permit) future payments of these subsidies. That is a far more democratic way to deal with this critical issue of public policy.

At first blush this sounds logical, but the logic falls apart like a wet piece of paper if the president can veto any appropriation bill with impunity. Congress must have the power to say “no” and make it stick, perhaps resulting in a government shutdown, or the power of the purse is meaningless.

Also, Seib’s suggestion that the GOP could blow its electoral chances by being unduly combative isn’t necessarily correct. If Republicans go into the 2016 elections with a record of having accomplished basically nothing in two years while controlling both houses of Congress, who’s to say voters won’t blame this outcome on them rather than the other side?

Summing up, nobody really wants a government shutdown and there is no inherent reason that one should be necessary. Congress does have a duty to stop kicking the fiscal problem down the road, however, and if a shutdown is necessary to make that point then it may need to happen. We think Republicans should announce that they plan to get the appropriation bills done without further delay and will abolish the filibuster if necessary.

**********FEEDBACK**********

From this week’s cover note: “If a government shutdown is needed to get the nation’s leaders focused on the real problems, so be it, or at least that’s your faithful scribe's conclusion. What do you readers think?” Reponses indicated a range of opinions.

Agreed – SAFE director

Congress, controlled by Republicans, should defund Planned Parenthood and thereby force the president to either agree or go on record as supporting the horrendous things Planned Parenthood has been doing – SAFE member (DE)

Attorney in non-profit organization - I think a shutdown could be quite good, on three conditions: (1) Conservative demands should be for something that will appear particularly popular, given the media’s strong bias against the GOP, which might mean the demands are somewhat modest at first. Don’t rule out a refusal to lift the debt limit rather than a budget showdown, which would not require a default on most debts or payments (as tax receipts keep coming in) but would require the administration to prioritize payments. (2) Conservatives (including the leadership in both houses of Congress) must stick together and continue the shutdown until they win it. Otherwise, don’t start the process. (3) Congressional leaders must be articulate in rebutting the predictable false charges about what is their responsibility and what is the president’s. – Attorney in non-profit organization

The only problem with a government shutdown is that the mainstream media will blame the GOP and the administration will strive to maximize the pain and inconvenience to the general public, thus jeopardizing the 2016 election chances of Republicans/conservatives. We should always keep in the forefront the Prize: winning the 2016 election. This election may be the most crucial for the country since the election of 1980. Ideological purity is nice, but in politics compromises must be made. - Retired judge




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