Tag: Republicans

GOP Wins First Skirmish in Budget Fight, but Shutdown Battle Still Looms

A large number of Democrats voted with Republicans in the House yesterday to pass a two-week spending bill that includes $4 billion in cuts compared to what Obama requested. This is a modest victory for the GOP since they can truthfully claim that they are on target to impose the equivalent of $100 billion of cuts over a full fiscal year.

And it appears the Senate will go along with the House proposal, as reported in today’s Washington Post:

The deal, which eliminates dozens of earmarks and a handful of little-known programs that President Obama has identified as unnecessary, sailed through the House on a 335 to 91 vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who initially resisted including any cuts in a short-term funding extension, predicted that it will pass that chamber as early as Wednesday.

Some people correctly note that a $4 billion cut is trivial since government spending has ballooned by $2 trillion during the Bush-Obama spending binge — especially since at least some of the supposed spending cut is based on the dishonest Washington practice of measuring “cuts” on the basis of how much Obama wanted to spend rather than nominal changes from one year to the next. Nonetheless, it is a very positive development that the conversation has shifted from “how much should spending be increased?” to “how much should spending be cut?”

That being said, the battle is far from over. Indeed, the GOP began the 1995 shutdown fight in good shape. As I explained in a recent National Review article, a significant number of congressional Democrats sided with Republicans and it appeared that Clinton was on the defensive.

But GOPers ultimately did not get everything they wanted that year, in part because Clinton and the Democrats were able to regroup when the government was temporarily re-opened for a three-week period. Democrats today presumably view the current two-week agreement as a similar opportunity to make a short-term tactical retreat in hopes of winning bigger battles in the future (not just the fight over FY2011 spending levels, but also the upcoming FY2012 budget resolution debate and the debt limit conflict in June or July).

In other words, Republicans should be very careful about having their energy dissipated by a series of diversionary battles over short-run spending bills. At the very least, they need to insist that all such bills include pro-rated spending cuts to fulfill their promise of reducing Obama’s request by $100 billion.

At some point, perhaps when the two-week agreement expires, Democrats will balk at that tiny level of fiscal discipline. And if Republicans also hold firm, this means a government shutdown. Obama and Reid will imply this is somehow the fault of the GOP, but the Washington Post story suggests that recycling the 1995 strategy may not be very successful for the left:

Republicans bore the brunt of the blame that time. A Washington Post poll released this week suggested that this time, voters would apportion fault about equally to both parties. What has changed? The state of the economy is far more precarious than it was in the mid-1990s, the deficit is 10 times as large, and the public’s confidence in elected officials is even lower.

…But if the politics of a shutdown are in many ways more treacherous than they were in 1995, the actual effects of one would probably be less disruptive. Indeed, so many things have now been declared essential services that the government might “shut down” without most Americans noticing much difference. As happened in 1995, air traffic controllers would still watch the skies. And a wider swath of military, diplomatic and national security personnel would stay on the job to deal with concerns in a post-9/11 world.

…Therein lies the paradox under all the talk of a shutdown. Privately, some Democrats say they fear that a closure that barely affects the daily lives of most Americans could bolster conservatives’ argument that much of what the government does is unnecessary.

The final sentence of this excerpt is key. Would anybody (other than interest groups with snouts in federal trough) notice or care if the Department of Housing and Urban Development was shut down? Is anybody going to lose sleep if the Department of Energy is in hibernation?

In other words, a “government shutdown” would reveal that most of the “non-essential” parts of government are not necessary in the short run or the long run.

This is why Republicans, if they are reasonably astute, hold the upper hand in the current negotiations. They should speak softly and sound reasonable, but carry the big stick of a shutdown in order to ensure that the spending cut target for FY2011 spending is not eroded. And if they prevail, that will have a very positive carryover effect on the looming fights on the FY2012 budget resolution as well as the debt limit.

One final comment about the Washington Post report. The story asserts that Clinton had fiscal credibility because he imposed a tax increase in 1993. But as I have already explained, that tax increase was a miserable failure and even Clinton’s own OMB forecast, made 18 months after the tax increase was adopted, showed permanent deficits of more than $200 billion.

Nondefense Discretionary Spending Freezes

When it comes to reining in federal spending, House Republicans and the president have one idea in common: freezing nondefense discretionary spending. That category accounts for about 18 percent of total spending, so let’s see how such a freeze would affect the overall budget.

Today the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget figures and baseline projections of federal spending through fiscal 2021. Projecting the budgetary future is obviously an inexact science, and the CBO’s baseline reflects unrealistic assumptions. However, it does allow us to get an idea of the impact of a nondefense discretionary freeze on total federal spending.

Three proposals have been put forward:

  • In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for five years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2010 levels.
  • The conservative House Republican Study Committee and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for ten years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2006 levels.
  • Ever since the release of its “Pledge to America,” the House Republican leadership has been talking about returning spending to fiscal 2008 levels. They apparently have non-security discretionary spending in mind, which is an even smaller category than nondefense discretionary. It’s not clear if they intend to freeze it at the new lower level.

Using the CBO’s latest figures, I calculated baseline spending from fiscal 2012-2021 under ten year freezes in nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006, 2008, and 2010 levels:

Note:   To make an apples-to-apples comparison, I extended the proposed Obama freeze at fiscal 2010 levels from five years to ten years, and I assumed a ten year freeze at fiscal 2008 levels for the House Republicans. Also, projected annual interest payments on the debt are excluded. Therefore, the chart refers to “baseline program spending,” which is the sum of nondefense discretionary, defense, and entitlement spending.

The chart makes it excruciatingly clear that freezing nondefense discretionary spending at the levels specified or implied by Republicans and Democrats is only a start toward needed reforms in the federal budget. Congress also needs to cut defense spending, and spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.

George W. McDonnell

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell must be a Bush Republican. The Washington Post reports today:

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plans a massive spending campaign that he said would unclog state roads, award thousands more college degrees and spur job creation, part of an aggressive legislative agenda he is expected to roll out this week.

McDonnell (R) will press lawmakers to approve a series of statewide projects he said would be paid in part through Virginia’s $403 million budget surplus, $337 million in higher-than-expected tax revenue, and $192 million generated through cuts and savings….

He plans to borrow nearly $3 billion over the next three years.

That doesn’t sound like the agenda of a Reagan Republican or a Tea Party Republican. It sounds a lot like the program of George W. Bush, the biggest-spending president between LBJ and, well, the president who followed Bush.

Of course, McDonnell might also be called a George Allen Republican. Allen, who served as governor of Virginia from 1994 through 1997, has a reputation as a staunch conservative. But he earned a grade of 40 on the Cato Institute’s Fiscal Policy Report Card. McDonnell seems to be headed for a similar grade.

Earmarks, Spending, and the Scope of the Federal Government

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Republican senators were turning their back on a massive spending bill stuffed full of their own earmarks. Those earmarks, the Post noted, included quite a few to benefit Mississippi, the home state of Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran:

Wicker, along with Cochran, had by then already sponsored earmarks in the spending bill that would fund an airport expansion in Tunica ($1.75 million), new riverwalk lights in Columbus ($300,000), improvements to a hiking and biking trail in Hattiesburg ($700,000) and improvements to an assortment of bridges, highways, trails, railways and streets across Mississippi.

A burgeoning Tea Party revolt against earmarks caused the bill to be withdrawn. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a press conference to defend earmarks as the constitutional duty of the people’s elected representatives. (And, as many of our friends have emailed to tell us, held up a copy of the Cato pocket Constitution — 10 for $10 this Christmas season! — to make his point. Ah, well.)

But the real problem here is not earmarks. The underlying issue is not whether members of Congress or unelected bureaucrats spend the money that Congress appropriates for highways and the like. The real question is, why are local roads and bridges and hiking trails and riverwalk lights being paid for by taxpayers across the country?

If the people of Columbus, Mississippi, want new lights on their riverwalk, why are they asking the families of New Hampshire and Indiana and Oregon to pay for them? Shouldn’t they pay for their own lights, and let the people of Hattiesburg pay for their own hiking trails, and let the people of Oregon pay for any roads, bridges, or hiking trails that they value?

The fundamental problem is not earmarks. It is that the federal government is paying for clearly local and state responsibilities. Opponents of excessive spending should not stop at an earmark ban. They should insist that the federal government pay for national needs and leave state and local projects to the states and towns that want them.

Still Not Serious About Cutting Spending

The howls of outrage that have greeted the report of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform shows two things:  1) most Democrats have no interest in reducing the size and cost of government; and 2) few Republicans are actually serious about it.

From the initial reaction, one would think that the Commission has slashed government to the bone, throwing the elderly, poor and sick into the street.  In reality, the Commission report is far from a radical document.  It proposes a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years.  That’s a start.  But as recently as 2000 total federal spending was just 18.4 percent of GDP – and people were hardly dying in the streets during the Clinton years.  

In fact, the Commission doesn’t actually “cut” federal spending.  Under the Commission’s proposal, it would rise from roughly $3.5 trillion today to more than $5 trillion by 2020.  So, under the terrible “cuts” that the Commission is recommending, federal spending would still increase faster than inflation.  This is the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

But Democrats appear unwilling to support even this modest slowing in the growth of government.  Instead they call for simply raising taxes to support a virtually unlimited amount of federal spending.  Republicans, meanwhile, talk about reducing government, but fall back on bromides about reducing waste, fraud, and abuse when faced with the need to make specific cuts.

If we were serious about reducing the size, cost and intrusiveness of government, we should roll back spending to Clinton-era levels.  (My colleague Chris Edwards has shown how that can be done.)  That would eliminate the need for the tax increases that the commission proposes. 

Alas, we still await political leadership with that amount of courage.

Will the Deficit Compel Congress to Cut Military Spending?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, Megan Scully notes the military spending cuts contained within a proposal by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president’s deficit reduction commission. Scully asks: “How feasible would it be for lawmakers to make these kinds of cuts to defense?…What kind of sway will fiscal hawks have in the next Congress - and will it be enough to push through sweeping defense cuts over the objections from pro-defense members of their party?”

Government spending across the board must be cut, I explain, beginning especially with entitlements.  I continue:

Other spending must also be on the table, however, and that includes the roughly 23 percent of the federal budget that goes to the military. This often poses a particular challenge for Republicans given their traditional support for military spending and their professed commitment to fiscal discipline. But it need not be particularly difficult. If Republicans reaffirm that the core function of government, many would say one of the only core functions of government, is defense (strictly speaking), then the path to a politically sustainable and economically sound defense posture is clear: a military geared to defending the United States and its vital national interests, and not permanently deployed as the world’s policeman and armed social worker. Such a posture would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon’s civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix….

Serious cuts to military spending… must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

 You can read the rest of my response here.

Ban Spending Earmarks, But Not Tariff Cuts

Republican leaders in Congress announced Monday that they are all on board to ban spending “earmarks” when the newly elected Congress convenes in January. That is all to the good. While not a large share of the federal budget, the designation of tax dollars to fund specific pet projects in member districts has come to symbolize out-of-control spending in Washington.

Those same leaders should clarify that the earmark ban applies only to spending projects—not to the kind of tariff suspensions including in a recent miscellaneous tariff bill.

The U.S. Manufacturing Enhancement Act approved by Congress in July suspended tariffs on hundreds of imported items of special interest to U.S. manufacturers. House Republican leaders made the mistake earlier this year of including such tariff suspensions in an earmark ban they announced in March.

The overly broad definition of an earmark boxed the leadership into opposing a perfectly sensible trade bill. Despite the half-hearted opposition of the GOP leadership, the U.S. Manufacturing Enhancement Act passed overwhelmingly in the House on July 21, by a margin of 378-43, with Republicans supporting it by a 3-1 margin.

Most members of Congress already understood what the Cato Institute pointed out in a September 2010 study recommending reform of future miscellaneous tariff bills—that tariff cuts are not the same as spending earmarks. Here is what I wrote in the study about the difference between tariff cuts and the kind of spending earmarks that has angered voters:

Spending-bill earmarks distribute tax dollars not for any public purpose authorized under the U.S. Constitution, but rather to benefit a certain special interest or a specific city or district. They grant favors to a small group of beneficiaries at the public’s expense. In contrast, a tariff suspension repeals a narrow tax that falls disproportionately and unfairly on a small group of producers. Instead of granting a favor at the public’s expense, a tariff suspension relieves individual producers of a burden that falls on them and nobody else. Unlike a spending earmark, a tariff suspension creates no new claim on public resources. It does not expand the scope or size of government.

Including tariff suspensions in the moratorium is not a matter of curbing the power of lobbyists. There is a world of difference between lobbying for a $500,000 government grant for a project with narrow benefits, and lobbying to remove a $500,000 tax bill that only a handful of enterprises are required to pay. The former seeks an expansion of the government’s power and influence, the latter a reduction. Republicans who rightly complain about the growth of the federal government should be the first to embrace the suspension and repeal of hundreds of nuisance taxes distorting the economy and burdening American producers.

The new Congress may soon consider another miscellaneous tariff bill to further reduce discriminatory tariffs that impose real costs on U.S. companies trying to compete in global markets. Republican leaders should join with their Democratic counterparts in the new Congress to clarify that suspending or repealing unfair tariffs should not be banned but should be vigorously pursued.