They had barely closed the vote last Wednesday evening to adopt the Republican budget when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spilled out into the Speaker’s Lobby just off the floor.
The Louisiana Republican gleamed from ear to ear.
“This is a huge deal,” he exclaimed at passage of the budget agreement. “Some thought it couldn’t be done.”
You’ll understand Scalise’s joy. Republicans may have their biggest majority in the House since the Hoover administration. But at times, the unsteady machinations of the House GOP trying to advance its agenda resembles the adventures of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Districts of Columbia’s House member, trying to park her car.
Scalise unexpectedly rose to leadership last summer. And in particular, he has had little to brag about in his short time as the top Republican vote counter. Ushering bills to passage emerged as a major chore as the GOP brass struggled mightily to grapple with internecine squabbles between members.
Last August, there was an immediate problem with a bill to deal with thousands of unaccompanied children and teens arriving at the U.S. border. There was a close call on a procedural vote for the so-called “CRomnibus,” the big spending package to fund most of the federal government.
There was an abortion bill that the GOP leadership yanked because of internal fighting. Then came the effort to trump the president’s executive orders on immigration, yet fund the Department of Homeland Security.
After a bloody skirmish, the Republican brain trust reluctantly ceded ground, allowing the executive action to stand and funding the department.
Even House Republican efforts to approve a budget grew dicey.
Defense-minded Republicans balked at the austere Pentagon spending in a blueprint authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga. Led by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, defense hawks told leaders they wouldn’t support the budget unless Price poured additional defense dollars into his resolution. Meantime, fiscal conservatives protested. They preferred the more-parsimonious plan and wouldn’t vote yes unless Price “plussed-up” the defense side of the equation.
It was a perfect storm that threatened passage of a budget.
Republicans were on the verge of failing their own, quintessential litmus test. After all, they had given no quarter to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nevada, when he abandoned efforts to move a budget through his chamber.
But not today.
The Republican leadership muscled through a budget, satisfying the desires of defense hawks. Republicans only lost 17 of their own.
Scalise was proud of the effort.
“We were right where we thought we’d be. In fact, we picked up one more than we thought,” he boasted. “Budgets are always tough. We worked hard to bring defense hawks and budget hawks together.”
Ultra-right lawmakers may crow about the additional spending or some suggestions that the extra military money isn’t subject to a series of “caps” that impact much of the spending which Congress controls. But it was clear which side emerged victorious in this budget match.
“There could not have been a budget had the whip team not intervened,” Turner said after the vote, referring to the protests by defense backers.
They told GOP leaders they would tank the budget unless they fixed the Pentagon spending. They did. And the House sidestepped the potential for a massive embarrassment of not approving a budget.
This entire exercise is steeped in a series of events that date back nearly four years. Episodes that cut to the core of the spending battles defining Washington these days and represent the very marrow of how Congress repeatedly struggles to handle the most-basic of tasks.
In the summer of 2011, the country hurtled toward a rendezvous with the nation’s debt ceiling. A failure to hike the debt limit could prompt untold economic and financial consequences. An economic meltdown. A calamitous market selloff. You name it.
So House and Senate leaders from both parties -- in consultation with the Obama administration -- engineered a bill called the Budget Control Act. The BCA would up the debt threshold, euthanizing the immediate concern about the credit worthiness of the federal government.
But remember, the summer of 2011 was just a few months after the Tea Party propelled Republicans into the House majority. The GOP was on notice to slash spending -- spending which it claimed was out of control due to ObamaCare, the $700 billion economic stimulus plan and an additional $700 billion as a result of the financial bailout plan of 2008.
If they were going to increase the debt limit, Republicans insisted on hefty spending cuts.
A pound of flesh ...
So in addition to raising the debt ceiling, Congress voted to empanel a bipartisan, bicameral panel called the “supercommittee.” It would recommend around $1.2 trillion in spending reductions.
“Recommend” is the key word here. The supercommittee wasn’t required to cough up the spending reductions. Nor was Congress bound to act on the suggestions. But if it didn’t, there was a cost. A big one. Something called “sequestration.”
Sequestration was a threat to the supercommittee and the rest of Congress. Settle on cuts or else. The “or else” was a set of staggering, across-the-board reductions in all sectors of government.
Failure to succeed? Well, then sequestration would set in. This is what’s known as “paying the fiddler.”
First some background:
The entire federal government spends more than $3 trillion annually. That’s split between two types of federal spending. The biggest part of spending is what’s called “mandatory.” That means the federal government has to spend it. You might say, well, no one has to spend anything. But then there would be an awful lot of people reaping the benefits of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security who wouldn’t be very happy. Those programs fall under mandatory spending. It’s mandatory because Treasury must spend it -- and Congress never gets involved. And it accounts for two-thirds of that $3 trillion which flies out the door.
Naturally, Congress set up all of this by creating entitlement programs years ago, then elected not to determine how much money it would allocate for those initiatives. Every entitlement recipient receives his or her benefit based on a formula: for what they qualify, how much they paid in, age, etc.
Congress could reclaim all of that mandatory money and decide how to spend it. But there’s no movement to do that.
That leaves us with the other one-third of federal spending. This is what’s called “discretionary spending because, well, Congress exercises discretion over which programs it deems necessary. Discretionary spending comes in at around $1 trillion annually.
In short, Congress only manages about a third of all money the federal government spends. The rest is on automatic pilot. If you’re upset about how much Washington spends, look at the entitlement programs you receive.
So back to the Budget Control Act…
The BCA’s sequester wouldn’t touch mandatory spending, the part of federal spending which if touched, could really make a dent in the national debt. Instead, they limited sequestration to only discretionary spending. The idea was that sequestration would compel lawmakers to reach an accord on cuts. Otherwise, bad things might happen.
But the BCA’s authors were pretty sly. It would be one thing to hit all parts of federal spending equally via sequestration. But it’s another enterprise to leave the military smarting. So the authors structured sequestration in such a way that it inordinately bludgeoned defense. To be fair, Congress directs about one-half of all discretionary spending toward the military. That means the Pentagon would have to shoulder most of the weight anyway. But the thought behind the sequester was to force the military to carry most of the water and lawmakers would ensure that Pentagon sequestration cuts never became too onerous.
At least that was the theory.
On a fateful afternoon not long before voting for the Budget Control Act in 2011, defense hawks huddled in the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Some felt duped. Others were wary of supporting the BCA because of its threatened impact on the military budget.
“I’m not happy,” then-House Armed Serviced Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., groused at the time. “I don’t want a deal-breaker. I want us to get this worked out.”
“If it happened it could cause a lot of heartburn,” said then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “The purpose of the sequestration threat is not to have the trigger pulled. It’s a motivator.”
Yet lawmakers bit the bullet and passed the BCA, with the sequestration provisions attached.
Current Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., wasn’t pleased but went along.
“The United States cannot default on our obligations and this bill prevents that from happening,” he said. “The deal is not perfect. It is not what I would have written and I have great concerns about the cuts to our nation’s defense spending that may have to occur as a result of this bill’s passage. We must do everything we can to avoid an exercise in blind sequestration of defense funds that could come into play if the joint committee cannot find a way to further avoid cuts of $1.2 trillion.”
Said Turner last week: “I am pleased to see that the House Republican leadership listened to the concerns raised by 70 of my colleagues in the (chamber) and the leaders of our military and took action to fully fund our Defense Department in this year’s House Republican budget proposal. I have been given strong assurances that under this proposal, the Pentagon would have the ability to use the money they need.”
What is past is prologue. The supercommittee failed spectacularly. Congress is now nearly four years into sequestration -- with each succeeding year’s cuts to the Pentagon more pernicious than the last.
There is an appetite in Washington to extinguish the sequester. But there’s an unholy alliance afoot. Fiscal conservatives like preserving the defense cuts. They view sequestration as the only blunt tool they have to cut spending. And they feel that Congress has otherwise has made little progress at reducing spending. Some liberal Democrats also like the sequester -- mainly because of the cuts for the Pentagon. They’ve long thought the military enjoyed the spoils at the hands of other programs. So some liberals are okay tolerating sequestration. And no one sees a way out of this cul-de-sac now.
That’s what prompted the recent contretemps about the budget and extra defense spending, which by the way is in an account not subject to the sequestration caps required under the BCA.
“We have a standing army that is atrophying and a world more dangerous than it’s ever been,” Turner said.
And more defense cuts and fights like this yet to come. Over the next budget. And the next budget. And the next budget.
We’ll see how many GOP leaders are smiling after a few more rounds of this.