How long do you have to be in Congress before you understand how the federal budget works?
Longer, evidently, than five-term Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who leads the loose confederation of dissidents known as the Freedom Caucus. In a prepared statement, Jordan blasted the proposed budget deal that the White House negotiated with Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress because, among other things, it waived the federal debt limit until March 2017.
“Another last-minute, back-room spending deal by the White House and Congressional leaders that busts the budget caps and allows unlimited debt for the next 18 months. No wonder so many Americans distrust Congress,” Jordan declared.
The “busts the budget caps” part is half right. The deal would allow $50 billion more in spending in fiscal 2016 and $30 billion more in fiscal 2017 than allowed under the “sequester” cuts ordered by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Even with the extra amounts, however, total discretionary spending will remain below where it was in 2010 – even before adjusting those numbers for inflation. The real budget busting is coming from entitlement programs, particularly health-related ones such as Medicare and Medicaid, that aren’t affected by the Budget Control Act caps.
Which brings us to Jordan’s comment about “unlimited debt for the next 18 months.” That’s akin to saying Congress will have to pay its bills, therefore it won’t show any fiscal restraint.
As Jordan knows all too well, the statutory debt limit hasn’t stopped Congress from running up the government’s tab. For instance, having a debt limit didn’t stop Congress from launching a prescription drug benefit for seniors while cutting taxes and fighting off-budget wars during the George W. Bush administration, and it didn’t prevent lawmakers from expanding Medicaid, providing health insurance subsidies to millions of lower-income Americans and renewing almost all of the Bush-era tax cuts during the Obama administration.
In other words, if Congress wants to rein in the growing debt, it will have to repeal some of the spending mandates that are responsible for the problem – i.e., those in health-related entitlements – or increase tax revenue. Or both. If it doesn’t do those things, the only thing it accomplishes by not raising the statutory debt limit is to default on the obligations that lawmakers themselves created.
Granted, the budget deal negotiated with the Obama administration could have included major entitlement reforms, overhauled the tax code or taken some other steps toward solving Washington’s fundamental fiscal problems — had Congress actually laid the groundwork for any of those things. But it hasn’t. For all the theorizing House Republicans have done on the subjects of Medicare and Medicaid costs, they’ve not tried to implement the overhauls they’ve suggested in their annual budget resolutions. Tax reform gathered some momentum last year, but that seems to have dissipated now.
So, as The Times editorial board observed Wednesday, the choice facing House members is to take pragmatic steps to keep the government operating until after the next presidential election, or to rail about the debt ceiling and spending programs that are growing more slowly than inflation, with or without budget caps. Like his colleagues in the Freedom Caucus, Jordan appears to have opted for the latter.