March Madness: Let the Games Begin
Kenneth Gold | March 18, 2016
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and all around Washington the daffodils are just beginning to poke out of the ground. Most of us inside the Beltway are focused on the presidential primaries, and of course on the NCAA Tournament. The beginning of the next fiscal year is still more than six months away, and the budget process is still in its first early stage.
On Wednesday the House Budget Committee reported out its version of the FY17 budget resolution, the earliest the Committee has completed its work since 2008, and well ahead of the April 15 deadline for passing a congressional budget resolution. With the overall discretionary spending number already agreed to as a result of the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA)(PL 114-74), and the budget process right on schedule, it might be reasonable to suggest that this year we’re likely to see all 12 of the appropriations bills completed and signed into law before the October 1 start of the fiscal year, something that hasn’t happened since 1994. But betting that will happen is at least as unlikely as a 16 seed beating a 1 seed in the Tournament, something that’s never happened.
With Republicans in firm control of both chambers, passing a budget resolution would seem to be a fairly easy lift, especially given the two-year budget deal, and the fact that Congress passed one last year for the first time since 2010. Add to that the fact that new House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has made a pledge to return the chamber to regular order, which would presumably include actually passing appropriations bills. That pledge, in fact, was made in large part to meet the demands of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, which in effect took down Speaker Boehner just a few short months ago.
Yet as late as Wednesday morning, it was unclear that House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price could even get a majority to vote the budget resolution out of Committee, because of opposition by – you guessed it – members of the Freedom Caucus who serve on the Committee. Although the Bipartisan Budget Act set in place the FY17 discretionary number, members of the Freedom Caucus continue to oppose the higher levels, which add some $30 billion in spending over the Budget Control Act (BCA) cap. Their position is that first, they regard the BBA level as a cap, not a spending level; and that second, they didn’t vote in favor of the Act anyway, nor did they support the omnibus that set the higher spending levels for FY16.
On Wednesday night the Budget Committee did vote in support of reporting out the FY17 budget resolution, with all 14 Democrats and two Freedom Caucus Republicans, Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia and Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, voting no. Several budget hawks on the Committee agreed to vote to report it out of Committee, but threatened to oppose the budget resolution should it come to the floor for a vote.
The FY17 House budget resolution adheres to the spending levels set by the 2015 BBA, but also lays out a tax and spending framework that, like the last several Republican plans, seeks to balance the budget in a decade. The ten-year plan would cut spending by some $6.5 trillion with massive cuts to both mandatory and non-defense discretionary spending, including Medicare and Medicaid, with spending increases only in the defense budget. It also assumes a total repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and a major overhaul of the tax code, including lowering tax rates. Total discretionary spending, which has already fallen to less than 28% of the budget, would fall even further than the 23% currently projected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) by 2025.
As a way of garnering the support of Freedom Caucus members who opposed the spending limits, House leadership outlined a plan to cut some $30 billion in FY17 mandatory programs by the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees to offset the higher discretionary numbers. On Wednesday, Ways and Means did in fact approve three bills that would collectively cut approximately $98 billion in mandatory programs over ten years. The measures would be brought to the floor as a “sidecar” along with additional mandatory cuts by other House committees.
Freedom Caucus fiscal hawks, however, made clear they weren’t buying. They remained skeptical that the mandatory cuts would even be passed in the House; and if they did, they doubted that they’d even be voted on in the Senate, let alone signed into law by President Obama.
So in a last ditch effort to garner their support, House leadership is now considering a rules package that would permit mandatory spending cuts in appropriations bills, something that’s always been prohibited in the chamber’s rules, and could well derail the appropriations process even beyond its current sorry state.
Since its already apparent that Congress is highly unlikely to pass any individual appropriations bills this year, one member of the Freedom Caucus proposed an amendment to the budget resolution that would seek to ensure that the mandatory cuts wouldn’t be easily dismissed in the Senate, or by the president. The proposal, which passed on a party-line vote, would attach the sidecar of mandatory spending cuts to a continuing resolution (CR), which is widely expected to be the only possible vehicle for funding the government for at least some part of FY17.
Apart from the issue of whether this maneuver is even possible, or if it was, whether this sort of rules change is a good idea, it’s likely to face stiff opposition even within the Republican Party, especially by appropriators. It’s also distressing that even at this early stage in the budget process, that we’re already relegated to settling for a CR. And finally, that some members are already advocating attaching a highly toxic measure to the CR, which would greatly increase the chance of precipitating another government shutdown, a month before the elections.