On Monday, congressional leaders and the Trump administration announced agreement on legislation that would set budget and spending parameters for the next two years. The agreement would suspend the debt limit through July 2021, and establish spending levels for lawmakers to enact appropriations measures for the remainder of this Congress.
Conservatives have rightly criticized the agreement as abandoning the principles of smaller government, with a return to the trillion-dollar deficits seen under Barack Obama (and this time under a more robust economy). Among the many reasons to oppose the agreement, three in particular stand out.
1. More Spending Now
By loosening existing spending caps, the agreement would increase federal spending by more than $300 billion in the next two fiscal years. Of that more than $300 billion, the agreement pledges only $77.4 billion in offsets, with those coming from an extension of the Medicare sequester and an extension of customs fees. The administration proposed a total of $150 billion in offsets—about half of the spending increase contemplated by the agreement—but in the end Democrats would agree to offset only about one-quarter of the total spending increase.
When the Budget Control Act, which established the existing spending caps, passed in the summer of 2011, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—then the minority leader, now the majority leader—famously said it would slow down the “big government freight train.”
But in the time since that bill’s enactment, McConnell and his colleagues in Congress have repeatedly increased the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, speeding up the big government freight train over and over again.
2. More Spending Later
In many respects, the biggest policy failure comes from what the agreement excludes rather than what it includes. By not extending the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, it will allow them to expire. Effectively, therefore, the bill will raise spending by nearly $2 trillion over the coming decade, with a mere $77 billion of that new spending paid for.
On one level, the agreement at least wins points for honesty, by abandoning the pretense that Congress has any interest in controlling spending. However, future generations will wish that Congress had substituted some actual fiscal discipline for profligacy.
3. No Policy Improvements
To assuage the conservative concerns about the package’s spending binge, Republican leaders have pointed to other language in the agreement. Specifically, the text states that Republican leaders and the White House would have a veto on any appropriations riders passed by the Democratic House that would seek to (for instance) defund regulatory actions by the current administration:
Congressional leaders and the Administration agree that, relative to the [Fiscal Year] 2019 regular appropriations acts, there will be no poison pills, additional new riders…other changes in policy or conventions…or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.
In theory, this language blocks Democrats from eliminating restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, among other liberal priorities.
But what Republican leaders have tried to sell as a “win” for conservatives represents nothing of the sort. In the past two years, Republicans have not enacted many, if any, new appropriations riders, despite having control of the House, Senate, and White House. For instance, as I noted last year, Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee specifically voted against an amendment defunding the District of Columbia’s health insurance mandate, because Democrats objected to it.
If Democrats could block Republicans from enacting appropriations policy riders over the past two years, despite serving in the minority, could Republicans have blocked Democrats from enacting their own policy riders with continued control of the Senate and White House? That question should answer itself—provided Republicans had any spine (admittedly an uncertain prospect).
Instead, Republicans agreed to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to “win” something they already had—an understanding that neither side would enact appropriations policy riders. Taken from the most cynical perspective, the agreement uses the pro-life community’s worries about Democratic riders—riders which both the White House and Republican Senate already had the means to stop—to rationalize congressional Republicans’ continued spending binge.
Trump came into office pledging to “drain the swamp.” But the new government spending contemplated by this agreement wouldn’t drain the swamp so much as grow it. Conservatives, and the American people as a whole, deserve better.