Citing deficits, House GOP to take aim at entitlements

Citing deficits, House GOP to take aim at entitlements
© Greg Nash

Republicans on the House Budget Committee are pushing forward with a new budget resolution this year designed largely to rein in spending on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, according to the panel’s chairman.  

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE has delivered his 2019 budget, Rep. Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackBipartisan House group heads to Camp David retreat Pelosi to make history with second Speakership GOP rep says Dems want to hand Trump a government shutdown MORE (R-Ark.) said Wednesday, “and it's now the Congress’s time to act.” 

Womack, who captured the Budget gavel just last month, acknowledged that the sweeping fiscal agreement enacted last week — which solidifies discretionary spending levels over the next two years — essentially precludes the need for Congress to enact a new budget governing domestic programs for 2019. He also conceded that the Senate, for that very reason, is likely to skip the budget process this year altogether.

But citing skyrocketing deficit spending, Womack said he wants his committee to step in with a new budget blueprint — if only as a symbolic gesture — “to put America on a different glide path, from a fiscal perspective.” 

“We've got to have an opportunity to look at these from top to bottom, and then come up with what we believe are solutions that can be politically doable,” Womack told Bloomberg Television. 

“That's what the Budget Committee process will begin to do.” 

That effort, Womack suggested, will focus heavily on the entitlement side of the ledger, which was largely disregarded in the newly passed budget deal that Trump signed into law on Friday.  

“I think it’s fundamental,” Womack said of entitlement reform. “Seventy-eight percent of what we spend in your tax dollars goes out on autopilot.”

Womack emphasized that it’s early in the process — “I'm not going to try to prescribe an outcome for my committee,” he said — but floated the notion of tapping reconciliation as a device for fast-tracking entitlement changes. 

“You can hear the chatter from the other end of the Capitol, the Senate wing, that says that they may or may not do a budget this year because we've set the top line numbers on discretionary and they won't change anything on the mandatory side,” he said. 

“But if you look at the fiscal glide path of this country, it is not a sustainable formula.” 

The focus on entitlements is consistent with the message coming from Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE (R-Wis.), who has vowed to tackle the issue this year.  

“We’re never going to give up on entitlement reform,” Ryan told Fox Business on Tuesday. 

Any such effort, however, would almost certainly be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGreen New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault MORE (R-Ky.) has dismissed the idea of addressing entitlements ahead of the midterm elections.  

The Republicans’ stated concern for deficit spending is sure to ring hollow with Democrats, who are quick to point out that the GOP’s tax-code overhaul, passed in December, is estimated to add roughly $1 trillion to the debt. No Democrat in either chamber supported the bill. 

Those tax cuts, the Democrats charge, are part of the Republicans’ two-step “starve the beast” strategy: first, slash revenues; second, cut federal programs, citing deficit-spending concerns. 

“They've abandoned any discipline on the debt,” House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWinners and losers in the border security deal Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration MORE (D-Md.) said Tuesday.

It’s unclear if the Democrats will introduce a 2019 budget of their own. Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthTrump: Top Dems aren't allowing negotiators to make border security deal Dem rep: 'If Mick Mulvaney were president, we could’ve solved' border talks at Camp David retreat Bipartisan House group heads to Camp David retreat MORE (Ky.), the senior Democrat on the Budget panel, has suggested there would be no need to do so unless Womack pressed forward with a GOP bill 

“Our own budget might be moot,” Yarmuth told Bloomberg Tuesday. “[But] if they propose their budget, then we'll probably propose our own.”

Womack, for his part, is vowing to protect those currently benefitting from the entitlements. 

“We [have] got to be careful not to jerk that rag out from underneath the people that are currently receiving those benefits or nearing retirement and have planned their lives around them,” he told Bloomberg. “This is a great challenge for Congress. You can't do this on discretionary spending alone. It's just simply not mathematically possible.”

Yarmuth said there are cost-cutting entitlement reforms the Democrats are willing to accept, including items like empowering Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. Where the Democrats will draw their line, he warned, is if the cuts scale back Medicare services or access to care. 

“Clearly, we would want to make sure that there is no reduction in benefits to patients,” he told reporters Monday.