July 23, 2014

Tea Party Budget Plans Don’t Make Political Sense

The big federal budget news from last week was that, pushed by their tea party wing, House Republicans were seriously considering a fiscal 2013 budget resolution that proposed to cut appropriations below the levels agreed to last August in the Budget Control Act.

What I’m about to say almost certainly will be immediately and repeatedly quoted out of context, but it’s important to note that what the House GOP is thinking about doing isn’t prevented by the BCA. That law set a ceiling rather than a floor on discretionary spending, and while it might not have been promised or anticipated, proposing changes in what was agreed to seven months ago isn’t prohibited.

The additional cuts in spending aren’t even the first proposed changes in the law. That honor goes to the drumbeat that the automatic cut in military spending triggered by the failure of the anything-but-super committee not be allowed to go into effect as scheduled on Jan. 2, 2013.

But saying that proposing additional cuts in appropriated programs is allowable isn’t the same as saying it’s advisable. On the contrary, the effort is a combination of ridiculous politics and infuriating brinkmanship that will accomplish nothing, or at least nothing positive.

In some respects, it’s not hard to understand what the tea party wing is thinking. Even if it has been covered over each time with face-saving spin, the tea party has suffered a steady series of losses on budget issues. The enacted spending cuts have been far less than their supposed line in the sand, the debt ceiling was raised in defiance of its most basic beliefs and the payroll tax cut was extended without offsetting spending cuts.

And if that wasn’t enough, 2011 ended with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) openly defying his tea party wing by unilaterally deciding to extend the payroll tax cut without what it considered to be appropriate spending cuts. Because of all of this, the tea party folks need to show their voters that they are still relevant, still have clout and are still pushing for spending cuts.

There’s no better place to do this than in a budget resolution, the advisory legislation that, if adopted, puts the House on record in favor of reduced spending but doesn’t actually cut anything. That especially is the case this year because it’s looking increasingly unlikely that many (or any?) of the fiscal 2013 appropriations bills will be enacted before Election Day in November. In other words, the budget resolution may be the tea party wing’s only chance to show it still counts.

Why would Boehner agree to a budget resolution with the additional cuts?

First, he would be taking steps to protect his hold on the speakership by not slapping down a significant part of his own caucus. Second, proposing reductions from the levels approved in the deal agreed to last August might be the only budget-related debate that occurs before the elections and, therefore, is one of the few ways for the GOP to keep the issue alive this year.

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