Republicans in Congress are becoming Democrats when it comes to spending

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What does it mean to be a fiscal conservative? The Republican Party is struggling to answer the question. 

Just last week, the House passed a hurricane relief bill containing $36.5 billion in non-offset new spending. It comes on top of $15 billion that Congress passed just last month. 

Both bills pointedly ignored the spending cuts proposed by White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, which were intended to partially offset the dramatic emergency spending increases.

{mosads}Worse, the bill cancels — just completely wipes out — $16 billion of the nearly $30 billion debt held by the chronically insolvent National Flood Insurance Program, with absolutely no reforms made to the program.


Unfortunately, congressional Republicans are on track to do much more than blow the budget on non-offset emergency spending. 

Next on the chopping block is something much more significant: the Budget Control Act (BCA).

A mere six years ago, the BCA represented one of the most successful lids on federal spending in modern times, imposing strict limits on defense and non-defense discretionary programs. 

What made the accomplishment all the more impressive was that it was a deal extracted from President Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner by a group of determined conservatives fighting for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

This fact makes the current reality all the more discouraging for conservatives. It’s not Democrats who are about to undo the biggest fiscal accomplishment in years. It’s Republicans. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a former deficit hawk, has called for the “unconditional repeal” of the BCA, and 141 House Republicans have similarly signed a letter calling for the same spending increases. 

The Senate, by overwhelmingly passing a National Defense Authorization Act that was $91 billion above the spending caps set for this year, seems to agree. Especially because an additional $60 billion was stashed in Congress’ favorite loophole, the Overseas Contingency Operation account, conveniently not subject to the caps.

All of this points to the likelihood of an impending deal to bust both sides of the BCA caps. To overcome a 60-vote filibuster in the Senate, any increase in the defense cap will have to be matched by increases in the non-defense cap as well.

It’s difficult to comprehend but very likely about to play out: A Republican-controlled government is preparing to take a wrecking ball to the last vestige of fiscal sanity.

It’s almost as if members of Congress are channeling the words of the modern-day philosopher Ice Cube, “don’t worry about money cause I got plenty.”

Except, they don’t. The deficit is at $20 trillion. The debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is over 100 percent, a point where economies begin to fail. Spending in fiscal year 2017 alone has increased the deficit by $82 billion from the previous year. 

This, after President Trump issued a budget in February highlighting a savings of $57 billion in discretionary programs, and Republicans were handed majorities in Congress in part because of their commitment to fiscal restraint.

If a cap-busting deal goes through, it’s possible that a Republican controlled government could have larger deficits than the previous eight years of Democrat control. 

It’s true that the BCA caps have been difficult to live with. Living within limits requires prioritization — and Congress inevitably howls about having to do this part of their jobs. 

But what is without question is that the caps have restrained discretionary spending, and that has been good for the economy. From its peak of $1.3 trillion, discretionary spending, adjusted for inflation, has been cut by 16 percent.

The economy, rather than falling into a recession as a result of government downsizing, is now growing at close to 3 percent annually. The private economy is growing even faster. These are real cuts and real growth, representing the largest financial retrenchment in modern times.

To undo these gains would be to undo the first consecutive stretch of declining federal outlays since President Eisenhower’s first term in office. 

Opponents of the caps complain about the austerity, the implications of cuts on the military, and cite the discipline imposed by the caps as the “antithesis” of governing. But governing implies that Congress is capable of making the hard choices required to balance priorities, restrain spending where appropriate, and responsibly grow the economy. Congress has repeatedly shown that it’s not up to the task.

The BCA caps represent the most significant fiscal reform in decades. That these caps could be negotiated away under a Republican controlled government just years after they were enacted is a staggering statement on just how far the GOP has fallen from the party of fiscal conservatism.

Ergo, the answer to the question: What does it mean to be a fiscal conservative in Washington?

Apparently, nothing.

Rachel Bovard (@RachelBovard) is the senior director of policy for The Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit group headed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint aimed at promoting limited government.

Tags Balanced budget amendment BCA Boehner Budget Control Act Discretionary spending Economic policy economy Fiscal conservatism Fiscal policy John Boehner John McCain John McCain Mick Mulvaney Presidency of Barack Obama Rachel Bovard United States federal budget United States fiscal cliff

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