It is an old story. The Republicans could, once again, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
On one of my infrequent visits to the Hill last week, I heard a lot of chatter about offsets and other ways to get around the sequester caps, especially on defense spending, on the part of some of the House GOP leadership. The appropriators, whose stock in trade is spending other people’s money, are chafing under the sequester, maybe the single biggest victory for House Republicans since President Obama moved into the White House. This is unfortunate in that the current reduction in the deficit, stemming largely from the automatic sequester, is the largest and fastest since the post-World War II period.
House GOP Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), are looking for various and sundry budget offsets — through cuts or new revenue. At best, these negotiators will come up with a modest deal, but it would increase spending for both FY 14 and FY 15. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense (“Budget Contortionists,” December 6, 2013), the magic number is $30 billion more from increasing Transportation Security Administration fees for flyers, selling wireless spectrum, and increasing federal worker pension contributions.
Two out of three of these are worth considering (not the fees on flyers), but, in a sane world, the revenues should go to deficit reduction rather than more spending, right? But the Democratic Senate will insist on some pound of flesh, no doubt, while continuing its perpetual stonewalling against entitlement reform of any kind.
Meanwhile, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal is savaging House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) who, claims the Journal, wants “to cancel the $20 billion Pentagon spending cut for fiscal 2014.” Evidently, 34 Republicans on his committee might vote against the new budget if it sticks with the caps and cuts imposed by the sequestration process. This “insurrection” by the defense hawks is the mirror image of the rambunctious Tea Party wing that has made life interesting for Speaker Boehner. The Journal also says the GOP appropriators want to scrap discretionary spending caps per a recent letter to colleagues from Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and the 12 members of the “College of Cardinals,” his subcommittee chairmen. They believe that the 2014 sequester spending cuts “would result in more indiscriminate across the board reductions that could have negative consequences on critically important federal programs, especially national defense.”
So not only is revolt by the Tea Party members a possibility but also by the appropriators and the defense caucus as well. Passing a budget before the current continuing resolution expires could be problematic. “This could trigger another shutdown and pell-mell political retreat that makes the GOP again look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” notes the Wall Street Journal.
Chairman McKeon’s concerns with national defense are sincere, but the Journal argues that budgeting is a “political act” and, for the moment, caps and automatic sequester “are the only negotiating leverage Republicans have with Democrats.
“The minute the White House and Senate Democrats sense that Mr. Boehner lacks 218 votes to pass a budget, the liberal price of a deal will soar,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “They’ll insist on even more non-defense spending — $55 billion more next year, and $20 billion in tax increases.”
It could get even worse with appropriators rebelling, breaking the caps, and precipitating a backlash from the Tea Party. The Speaker might be forced to accept a tax increase to pass any budget and avoid a shutdown. At that point, says the Journal, “Mr. McKeon and GOP appropriators like Tom Cole of Oklahoma will have essentially made Harry Reid the House Speaker.”
Returning to my rare visit to the environs of the Hill, what I heard was this: The nightmare scenario described by the Journal, with Speaker Boehner whipsawed by the College of Cardinals and the Tea Party, may not happen at all. While some of the Tea Party folks may sit still for a modest spending increase, the appropriators will not get their way. The default position will, of necessity, be another continuing resolution, a kind of stalemate and a replay of the political gridlock to which we all have grown accustomed. Congress will swing from one budgetary trapeze to yet another with Republicans and Democrats hoping against hope that the 2014 elections will give their side a dominant majority. That, of course, is not likely to happen given the fundamental social, cultural, religious, and economic divisions of the nation which color it various shades of red, blue, and a bit purple in places. And President Obama will still be in the White House.