The GOP budget tug of war
The big spenders are still outmanning the forces of fiscal restraint
The Republican majority’s budget plan — enacted in a blitz of votes before lawmakers rushed home for spring break — tells us which Republican presidential hopefuls are serious about halting the nation’s soaring debt. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky voted against the GOP plan because it spends too much, while Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida led the ranks of big spenders.
One thing’s for sure. The GOP plan for fiscal 2016 is much better than President Obama’s. Saying he’s had enough of “mindless austerity,” Mr. Obama blew past the caps on domestic and defense spending he had agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. His plan is packed full of new giveaways, such as free community college.
In contrast, the Republican plan manages to stay under the domestic spending cap — an achievement in Washington’s spendaholic culture. When it came to defense spending, though, many Republicans fell back on familiar inside-the-Beltway budget tricks.
The nonpartisan National Defense Panel reported to Congress that new threats — Russian aggression, the collapse of the Iraqi army, and the rise of the Islamic State — require more front-line military spending. Mr. Obama has decimated front-line capacity and spent funds instead for more civilian staff at the Pentagon. The Pentagon’s civilian workforce is up to a staggering 744,000, while military personnel have been cut and weapons systems canceled.
Republican lawmakers all agree more spending on battle readiness is needed. But they disagree over how to deal with the defense spending cap. One obvious remedy is to redirect funds from civilian desk jobs to combat personnel and weapons. Another is to cut domestic spending by however much defense spending exceeds the cap.
Sadly, the Republican majority opted for neither, and instead resorted to an accounting gimmick, adding new spending to an Overseas Contingency Fund that is exempt from the cap.
Outraged, Republican Rep. Mike Mulvaney of South Carolina laments that in the House, “Fiscal hawks make up a minority of the party right now,” and he wonders whether “deficits and debt still matter.”
Ditto for the Senate. Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama calls spending caps “one of the best things that’s happened to the finances of this country.” But Mr. Graham dismisses them as “dumb.” He says “this is a war within the Republican Party.” Sadly, big spenders are winning.
Mr. Paul offered a proposal to offset the defense hikes with cuts to domestic spending, but it was defeated 96-4. That’s a discouraging sign that voters are not going to get what they were promised last November: a serious effort to control costs and address the soaring debt.
If you run a business or a family budget and you’re forced to spend unexpectedly in one area, you cut elsewhere. Congress could have started by cutting the 100 most unnecessary government projects, saving $25 billion a year, according to former Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook.”
Among them is a grant to Columbia University to invent interactive games that spur climate change activism, and a grant to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to host a marijuana music festival called “the High Note Series. ” Better to cut these than to hand out pink slips to soldiers. Another discouraging sign is the deal House Speaker John Boehner made with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently on the so-called “doc fix.” Congress was up against a deadline to prevent pay cuts to doctors treating Medicare patients. To woo Democrats, Mr. Boehner agreed to a two-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a $7.2 billion grant to Community Health Centers that serve largely illegal immigrants. This package of entitlement goodies costs $214 billion, and a whopping twothirds is unpaid for. No one in Congress lifted a finger to find cuts in other programs to offset these new costs. Instead, the billions will be piled on the nation’s debt.
Mr. Boehner and Mrs. Pelosi congratulated themselves on their bipartisanship. “This is what we can accomplish when we focus on finding common ground,” Mr. Boehner proudly announced. Common ground for Washington politicians, but not for John Q. Taxpayer and his grandkids. They’ll be paying forever.
Betsy McCaughey is author of “Beating Obamacare 2014” (Regnery, 2014) and a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Analysis.