The 35-Year GOP Budget Dilemma

One of the more important consequences of the Republican takeover of both chambers of Congress has been the GOP’s inability to paper over internal differences of opinion–or more to the point, to blame the inability to get stuff done on Harry Reid. We may be about to see this dynamic playing out in spectacular fashion when Congress takes up a FY 2016 budget resolution, which Republicans pretty much have to attempt after years of attacking Reid for Democratic Senate refusals to pass budget resolutions (a largely symbolic exercise absent enforcement mechanisms, and unnecessary for a while given the Obama-GOP spending agreements adopted outside “regular order”). As the New York Times‘ Jonathan Weisman describes the state of play right now, there’s a “chasm” between Republicans whose prime objective is to eliminate the sequestration system that has capped defense spending, and Republicans who are still spouting 2009-10 rhetoric about debt and deficits.

“This is a war within the Republican Party,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has vowed to oppose a final budget that does not ensure more military spending. “You can shade it any way you want, but this is war.”

The divisions will be laid bare Tuesday when congressional leaders unveil blueprints that hew to spending limits imposed by the budget battles of 2011.

Unlike legislation, the spending plan Republicans will be creating this week requires only a majority vote in both the House and Senate, cannot be blocked by a filibuster and is not subject to presidential approval or veto.

The intra-party tension this year has been ratcheted up by three external factors, of course: the general war-lust of Republicans, which is currently reaching early-2000s levels; shrinking short-term federal budget deficits; and an impending presidential election that makes the most likely way out of the GOP’s budget dilemma–Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts–rather perilous.

But it’s important not to think of this problem too narrowly as a current phenomenon. In reality, Republicans have been struggling with this same dynamic for 35 years, since the first Reagan Budget. Given four ideological goals in budgeting–lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and reducing budget deficits–the one that always gets the short end of the straw is deficit reduction, even if supply-side magic asterisks allow GOPers to pretend, temporarily, that deficits will take care of themselves, as long as they are the ones running them up. And speaking of magic asterisks:

Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, and Mr. Enzi are pressing for a place holder in the budget — a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” — that they say would allow Congress to come back in the coming months with legislation to lift the spending caps.

The idea is to pass a budget this month that sticks to the spending caps, but then negotiate a budget law this summer that ends sequestration. The $540 billion in cuts still to come under the Budget Control Act would be replaced by savings from entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security as well as new revenue from closing some tax loopholes.

To translate, this means an unenforceable promise to come back later and pay for a defense spending boost via “entitlement reform,” which Democrats and the White House have no intention of allowing. By summer, I guess, Republicans will come up with some way to delay the inevitable, and/or to disguise an implicit deal with Democrats to suspend sequestration long enough to give both the Pentagon and domestic programs a fresh drink of water.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.