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“Republicans Take The Less Risky Path”: The Budget Passes! Has The GOP Congress Come To Its Senses?

The news that the House passed a budget that will fund the government through next fall, and the Senate quickly followed suit, is in and of itself a big deal. But the fact that the bill passed so easily — on a vote of 316-113 in the House, with Republicans voting in favor of it by a margin of 150-95 — may be the really interesting story here.

Is the GOP Congress not what we thought it was? Is the way liberal commentators (myself included) have characterized the Republican caucus in the House over the last couple of years, as a group dominated by extremists who are willing to burn down everything in their path, an oversimplification?

It just may be. But let’s look at some competing explanations for why this budget passed so easily:

Paul Ryan is a genius. Perhaps this is all Paul Ryan’s doing, so deftly did he work his members to corral support for this bill. There’s something to that — there were specific steps he took to make all his members feel like they had a voice in the process, and even some of the most conservative members have praised his openness to their input.

But there are a couple of reasons to think that this explanation is incomplete at best. First, it suggests that the crises and intra-Republican battles of the last few years occurred only because John Boehner was inept at managing the more restive parts of his caucus. While no one is going to suggest that Boehner was some kind of legislative sensei, the members who forced those crises weren’t doing it just because they disliked Boehner. They were acting out of their own ideological and electoral interests, many because they saw their political fortunes in their own districts tied to the idea that they would be uncompromising in fighting both Barack Obama and their party’s leadership.

Second, this bill really was a compromise. It doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood, it doesn’t reduce the size of government, and it gives Democrats plenty of other things they wanted as well. Republicans in the House weren’t going to go along with it for no reason other than the fact that they got to sit down with the new Speaker and voice their complaints. So while they may feel better about Ryan than they did about Boehner, that can’t be the whole story.

They realized that making a fuss only raises expectations. The key dynamic in Republican politics these days comes from voter dissatisfaction with the party’s leaders, who have repeatedly promised to fight President Obama to their dying breath but has been unable to deliver on any of their substantive goals, like repealing the Affordable Care Act. Smarter Republican members may realize that shutdown crises only serve to increase this dissatisfaction, because they inevitably end in defeat for the conservatives. Even the angriest tea partier could eventually face a primary challenger who points out that the congressman didn’t succeed in stopping the march of socialism, no matter how often he shook his fist at his party’s leadership. So the less risky path might be to let the bill pass, keep the government running, and hope that nobody takes much notice of it.

There’s a silent (or at least relatively quiet) majority of Republicans in the House. Let’s not forget that 95 Republicans did vote against the bill, including the most conservative ones. In the past, the conservatives (or the tea partiers, or the Freedom Caucus, or however you want to refer to them) were only able to create crises and shutdowns because they were able to bring slightly less crazy members along with them. So it isn’t that the extreme conservatives have gotten any less extreme; what made the difference this time is that the merely very conservative members were no longer willing to set fire to the Capitol.

Those members in the ideological middle of the caucus (which, to be clear, is a very conservative place) can sound like tea partiers when the situation demands, but they are also realistic enough to know that some battles aren’t worth fighting. They certainly feel pressure from their right, but they may have learned from the mistakes of the past. And right now, as we move into 2016, the calculation of which risks are worth taking has changed. Which leads us to the final explanation:

The presidential race has changed everything. As I’ve been arguing since the last midterm election, congressional Republicans didn’t really need to “show they can govern.” What they needed to do was avoid screwing things up for their eventual 2016 presidential nominee. The reason is simple: if a Republican wins the White House next year, 2017 will see a bacchanal of conservative legislating that will leave no Republican desire unfulfilled. Trying to extract a few concessions from Barack Obama today is spectacularly foolish if it makes Republicans look bad and thereby reduces the chances of electing a Republican president by even the tiniest amount. The best strategy for congressional Republicans is to do no harm, and be patient.

With the presidential primary campaign now in full swing, that reality may be hitting home for more and more members of Congress. So even the most conservatives ones aren’t going to try to force a shutdown. Instead, they’ll vote against the budget bill, and when a reporter asks they’ll say, yes, of course it’s a surrender to Obama and a betrayal of conservative values, blah blah blah. But in their hearts, they probably realize that at this particular moment, passing the budget is the smart move.

So which one of these explanations is the right one? The answer may be different for different members, but I’m pretty sure they all played a role.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, December 18, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Budget, GOP Establishment, House Freedom Caucus, Senate | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“How The GOP Made Fiscal Responsibility Look Irresponsible”: It’s A Matter Of When, Not If, Republicans Will Cave

It’s a minor miracle: Both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress have passed a budget.

Now, that’s the easy part compared to getting appropriations bills to Obama’s desk that he will actually sign. And notwithstanding the bipartisan lovefest that surrounded the House bill fixing Medicare physician reimbursements (held up for the moment in the Senate over abortion), deep philosophical differences between the parties remain.

So a standoff between congressional Republicans and the White House is inevitable. (Unless you think Obama is going to suddenly want to repeal ObamaCare.) And under both Obama and President Bill Clinton, these stalemates have seldom ended well for the Republicans.

Why? Because even though the Constitution vests the most important taxing and spending powers in Congress, the president has some huge advantages. If the president doesn’t want to sign a given spending bill and Congress doesn’t have the votes to override the veto, lawmakers only have blunt instruments with which to force his hand. And since congressional Republicans tend to end up getting the blame in the media and in the polls, even those tools are of limited utility. The president knows it is a matter of when, not if, Republicans will cave.

Republicans are trying to rein in the spending driving both the long-term debt and the unfunded liabilities of the major entitlement programs the Democrats built. They are trying to be fiscally responsible.

You may not agree with all the cuts Republicans make in their budgets. You may not be convinced their numbers add up. But Paul Ryan and Tom Price have been more transparent about their fiscal vision than most of their detractors.

The president has a different vision, and he isn’t budging. To try and force his hand (if not change his mind), Republicans have relied on a series of high-profile manufactured crises: the fiscal cliff, various debt ceiling standoffs, government shutdowns, near-shutdowns of major Cabinet departments, the threat of across-the-board tax increases, you name it.

And that’s the problem. In the process, they have made fiscal responsibility look downright irresponsible.

As the national debt was careening toward $18 trillion, Republicans insisted there be some limit to the federal government’s borrowing power. But because of the means they used to try to compel the president, it was the Republicans who stood accused of refusing to pay Washington’s bills and letting the government default on its obligations.

In the fiscal cliff debate, Obama likened congressional Republicans to hostage takers when they tried to hold the line on spending and taxes. Fiscally-minded conservatives probably fancy themselves more green eyeshade accountants than hostage takers. But it’s true that the GOP’s weaponized approach made them look like irresponsible bad guys, at least in the mainstream media.

These battles haven’t been a total loss for Republicans. Far more of the Bush tax cuts have survived than once seemed likely. Sequestration has contained spending growth. But because sequestration hits defense spending as well as social programs, a lot of Republicans are as anxious for relief as the Democrats. This in turn annoys the party’s strongest fiscal conservatives. Why trust promises of future spending cuts when the leadership seems willing to roll back the ones already in effect?

Conservative activists are irritated by the fact they have little to show for the last time Republicans held the White House and Congress simultaneously — and probably feel a little guilty they didn’t do more to pressure Republicans at the time. So they have made up for it by pressuring Republicans to do things they don’t have enough power to do. And because the Republican leadership frequently says it will fight next time and then next time doesn’t come, their pleas for patience fall on deaf ears.

That’s true even among members of the House. A key group of fiscal conservatives clearly lacks confidence in the leadership but doesn’t have the votes or a plan to replace them.

While there has been substantial short-term deficit reduction, the fiscal picture over the longer term keeps getting bleaker. All conservative lawmakers can do is vote for bills they correctly see as entirely inadequate to fix the challenges facing the country — or deny leadership the votes to pass anything, except by working with the Democrats.

Thus the party of fiscal discipline often doesn’t seem disciplined at all.

 

By: W. James Antle, lll, The Week, March 30, 2015

March 31, 2015 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Fiscal Policy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right’s Word-Deed Problem”: Republicans Rely On All Sorts Of Magic Tricks That Shove Choices And Problems Down The Road

Briefly, there seemed a chance we might have a cross-party discussion of the biggest economic problem the country faces: the vexing intersection of wage stagnation, declining social mobility and rising inequality.

Even the most conservative Republicans were starting to talk about this challenge in rather urgent terms. In a moment whose irony he noted, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told a bunch of rich Republicans gathered by the Brothers Koch earlier this year that those doing well in America were “the top 1 percent, the millionaires and billionaires the president loves to demagogue, one or two of whom are here with us tonight” while the “people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.”

And on it went through the country’s top Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stressed “opportunity inequality” and Mitt Romney, in another ironic turn, charged that “under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer.”

It would be wonderful if conservatives really wanted to deal constructively with the predicament they so passionately describe. But thanks to the House and Senate GOP budgets, we now know that conservatives and Republicans (1) aren’t serious about the plight of working class and lower-income Americans, and (2) would actually make their situations much worse.

Their spending plans fail even on conservative terms: They are not fiscally responsible. Instead, they rely on all sorts of magic tricks that shove choices and problems down the road.

One heartening sign is that at least some conservatives find these budgets ridiculous. For example, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute headlined his commentary for The Week: “The disappointing unseriousness of the House GOP’s budget.”

Pethokoukis wrote: “House Republicans say they want to balance the federal budget and eventually eliminate the federal debt. They do not have a plan to do so. Oh, to be sure, they have a plan! Just not a realistic one that will actually accomplish their goals.”

He noted that of the $5.5 trillion in cuts from planned spending, $2 trillion would come from “repealing the Obamacare insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion and replacing them with … well, nothing right now.”

The wholesale assault on efforts to provide lower-income Americans with health insurance is the clearest sign that Republicans don’t want to deal with inequality. The inability to get health insurance is one of the biggest burdens on low-income families, particularly those working for low wages and few or no benefits.

Obamacare has helped 16.4 million Americans get health insurance. Where would they turn? And Republicans would compound the damage: The Senate proposes cutting an additional $400 billion from Medicaid over a decade, the House more than double that. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that on other low-income programs, the Senate budget cuts even more than the House. The vagueness of these plans makes it hard to tally how much damage would be done to food stamps, Pell Grants for low-income college students and the like, but Greenstein estimates that about two-thirds of the cuts in both plans come “from programs for the less fortunate, thereby exacerbating poverty and inequality.”

Greenstein concludes that under such proposals — here’s hoping President Obama is relentless in blocking them — “ours would be a coarser and less humane nation with higher levels of poverty and inequality, less opportunity,” and an “inadequately prepared” workforce.

Another bit of hypocrisy: These budget writers care so much about national security that they’re not willing to raise a dime in taxes to cover their sharp increases in defense spending. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, called out his conservative colleagues for how differently they treat defense and social spending.

“You’re always telling us the deficit is so bad we’ve got to cut programs for the elderly, for the sick and for the poor,” Sanders said, “and suddenly, all of that rhetoric disappears.”

Budgets are, by their nature, boring. That’s why those who assemble these long columns of numbers figure they can assail the well-being of the least privileged people in our society even as they profess to care about them so much.

I’d respect these folks a lot more if they said what they clearly believe: They think more inequality would be good for us. It almost makes you nostalgic for the candor of the Romney who spoke about the “47 percent” and the Paul Ryan who once divided us between “makers” and “takers.” Honesty beats saccharine words about the struggles of working people any day.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; Featured Post, The National Memo, March 23, 2015

March 24, 2015 Posted by | Budget, Republicans, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gimmicky Nature Of The Contingency Fund”: The Intra-GOP Budget Fight Grows Toxic Ahead Of Schedule

At the beginning of a week where action was scheduled to begin on a FY 2016 congressional budget resolution, it looked like Republicans were on the brink of a big split between fiscal hawks in the House who wanted to maintain caps on defense spending negotiated with the Obama administration and/or to require specific cuts in domestic spending to offset adjustments, and defense hawks in the Senate who wanted above all to blow up the defense caps forever and blast them to hell as a first step towards a 1980s-style defense buildup.

Those intra-Republican dynamics remain in place, but the fight has broken out much earlier than expected, in the House itself, and in fact in the House Budget Committee, where Paul Ryan’s successor as chairman, Tom Price of GA, can’t seem to get the votes to report a budget resolution. The Hill‘s Vicki Needham has the arcane story:

Negotiations to resolve a dispute over defense spending blew up Wednesday night in the House Budget Committee, as the panel came up short of approving a nearly $3.8 trillion Republican blueprint.

Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) saw the chances of pushing through an amendment to boost defense spending without offsets fade quickly in the waning hours of a markup of the GOP’s budget proposal, in the latest misstep for House Republicans.

Without a resolution, the Budget panel packed up for the night with Price saying the committee may reconvene Thursday, after even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wasn’t able to break the impasse.

House leadership had tested the waters for an amendment from Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) — which would bump up funding to $96 billion for an emergency account earmarked for overseas conflicts without a pay-for — in an effort to attract reluctant defense hawks.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his chief deputy, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), started reaching out to GOP Budget Committee members about whether a proposal to appease defense hawks could pass the panel even before Price kicked off his budget mark-up, according to aides.

Basically, Republicans anticipated trouble on the floor passing a budget resolution that already included a big chunk of change for an off-budget “contingency fund,” and tried to get an extra $20 billion thrown in to placate the defense hawks, but fiscal hawks on the committee–including that highly symbolic freshman, Rep. Dave Brat of VA, the man who slew Eric Cantor–said no.

Meanwhile, outside the hothouse–yes, pun intended–of the lower chamber, defense hawks were already complaining about the gimmicky nature of the contingency fund and are demanding a straight-up major boost in defense spending. Neocon WaPo blogger Jennifer Rubin was shrieking yesterday that the initial House budget resolution represented a “political betrayal” and a “disaster for national security.”

Trouble is, it’s not easy to find a way to accommodate still more defense spending in a budget that already (a) has the aforementioned phony-baloney “contingency fund,” (b) achieves its “balanced budget” targets only via “dynamic scoring” BS and by assuming revenues from implementation of Obamacare even as it proposes to abolish it, (c) proposes partially privatizing Medicare and dumping Medicaid on the states, and (d) stipulates vast but unspecified additional “entitlement” savings outside Social Security and health care.

There’s just no obvious way out of the budgetary math problems the GOP has invented for itself. If Republicans cannot come up with a consensus budget agreement, we’ll have another high-profile example of that party’s inability to govern, and there will also be no way to proceed with the plan to pass a reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare to show “the base” what Republicans will be able to do once the hated incumbent has left office.

Expect the gimmickry to reach new heights.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, March 19, 2015

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Budget, Fiscal Policy, GOP | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Self-Serving And Misguided”: Conservatives Want To Add Fantasy Thinking To The Budget

In yet another seemingly boring yet dramatic consequence of the midterm elections, Republicans and even some conservative Democrats are keen on adding “dynamic scoring” to the future budgeting process.

Top Republicans, eyeing full control of Congress next year, are considering changing the rules of the budget process so as to make tax cuts appear less harmful to the deficit.

They want to adopt a method called “dynamic scoring,” popular among conservatives since the 1970s, which scores budgets under the controversial assumption that tax cuts generate economic growth and make up for lost revenue — something critics have likened to “fairy dust.” The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper, does not use the method, but Republicans, and even some conservative Democrats, want it to.

“In practice, dynamic scoring is just another way for Republicans to enact tax cuts and block tax increases,” economist Bruce Bartlett argued in the New York Times in 2013. “It is not about honest revenue-estimating; it’s about using smoke and mirrors to institutionalize Republican ideology into the budget process.”

Of course, tax cuts do not, in fact, generate revenue. Tax cuts almost invariably cost revenue. The fantasy that tax cuts increase revenue is based on a back-of-a-napkin gimmick called the Laffer Curve, which states that at a certain point of unreasonably high taxes, cutting taxes will generate more revenue due to higher growth. The sleight of hand, of course, is in the inflection point of the curve. The tax rate would have to be ludicrously high for tax cuts to have enough of a stimulative effect to generate enough growth actually increase government revenue. We don’t even have to speculate about whether we’re anywhere close to that inflection point in the United States: the example of other social democracies demonstrates that higher rates do lead to higher government revenues, and the experience of the budget-busting Bush tax cuts demonstrates the inverse.

Conservatives have the problem that reality continues to be punishing to their worldview. Abstinence education doesn’t prevent teen pregnancy; tax cuts don’t generate revenue; climate change is real; supply-side economics doesn’t create sustainable growth; etc.

Their usual answer to be battered by the way the world actually works, is to spend oodles of money telling voters convenient fantasies. Dynamic scoring is just another way of inserting their self-serving and misguided wishful thinking into the reality-based budget system.

 

By: David Atkins, Washington Monthly Political Animal, October 4, 2014

October 5, 2014 Posted by | Budget, Conservatives | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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