House Republican leaders, stung by President Donald Trump’s rebuke of Congress’ recent trillion-dollar spending spree, are moving to give their rank-and-file cover by passing a balanced budget amendment this week.
But many conservatives, including a good number of House Republicans, say the vote is insincere at best — and blatantly hypocritical at worst.
“There is no one on Capitol Hill, and certainly no one on Main Street, that will take this vote seriously,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), on the heels of a $1.3 trillion spending package that Republicans just approved last month.
“Leadership is just trying to check a box here,” added Andrew Roth of the Club for Growth. “I don’t see how voters can distinguish between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to spending.”
One conservative commentator, Barbara Boland, equated the upcoming exercise to “gorging on a sumptuous feast while insisting that you want a svelte physique.” And other members of the House Freedom Caucus, many who voted against a $1.3 trillion spending package in late March, are calling it little more than a charade.
“The time to get spending under control was four weeks ago,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), again referring to the late-March spending vote. “Coming back four weeks later and saying, ‘Oh, now we’re going to pound our chest like Tarzan and say we’re for a balanced budget amendment,’ it’s not going to fool anybody.”
Jordan and Meadows support the balanced budget amendment as a marker for fiscal austerity — it’s the timing of the vote, on the heels of the spending bonanza, that rankles them and other conservatives.
The proposal requires supermajorities in both chambers to pass as well as ratification by three-quarters of the states, an impossible hurdle. But with Republicans swimming in red ink — the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected regular trillion-dollar annual deficits starting in 2020, despite a growing economy — the party feels pressure to do something.
The CBO’s deficit forecast hasn’t been that bleak since the Great Recession. And this time, Republicans can’t blame Barack Obama and the Democrats.
Rather, it’s a result of a combination of GOP-approved bills: tax cuts that CBO now expects to add $1.9 trillion to the deficit over 10 years; a newly passed bipartisan deal to raise strict spending caps by $320 billion for two years; and a recent $100 billion infusion of cash into emergency disaster coffers — almost entirely unpaid for.
The balanced budget amendment has been a staple of the GOP playbook going back at least to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America. It often resurfaces after major spending battles that leave conservatives feeling jilted. The last vote, for instance, followed the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, when Republicans were anxious about the national debt, which now tops $20 trillion.
Republicans are returning to it two weeks after Trump chided Congress for wasting money in the omnibus spending deal — a scolding that came as the president backed away from a threatened veto and signed it.
“I will never sign another bill like this again,” Trump vowed, adding that “there are a lot of things I’m unhappy about” with it.
His remarks, GOP lawmakers and aides say, effectively threw every Republican who backed the bipartisan deal under the bus at a time when the party already faces an uphill battle retaining their majority this fall.
Hill Republicans were shocked because White House staff were in the room negotiating the budget deal with the top four leaders in both chambers. They had reassured some skittish Republicans that it was OK to take the vote because Trump would have their backs.
When they returned home afterward for the spring recess, some Republicans caught flak from constituents, which in turn sent GOP leaders into damage-control mode.
“This reads as, ‘Give us something to hide behind,’ rather than a serious process proposal,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who said she’d believe the sincerity of the effort when Republicans propose a budget with actual spending cuts.
Not all fiscal hawks are scorning the effort. Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who asked for a vote on a balanced budget amendment in October, applauded the looming vote — even as he acknowledged the uncomfortable timing for the GOP. Walker argued that it’s consistent for Republicans to back the amendment after voting for the omnibus, because of the need to fund the military. Walker added, though, that most members pushing hard for deficit-reduction votes right now personally opposed the spending bill, as he did.
“We don’t see this as a show vote. We need this. It’s something that we’ve been talking about for years,” Walker said Tuesday.
The balanced budget amendment is one of several measures GOP leaders might bring to the floor in the coming weeks to signal their commitment to lower spending. The effort is being led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is working with the White House to try to force a vote on a “rescissions” package that would cut billions of dollars from the just-approved omnibus legislation.
It’s still unclear whether the House will take up the measure, which GOP aides say could cut as much as $20 billion. House appropriators hate the idea and some more pragmatic-minded Republicans argue it would cripple bipartisan spending negotiations in the future.
Republicans clinched the amount they got for defense only because they gave Democrats some money for their own pet projects. A move to recoup money retroactively would infuriate Democrats — even though GOP leaders fully expect it would fail in the Senate.
GOP leaders similarly expect the balanced budget amendment to fail this week in the House. It requires 290 votes for passage; the last time lawmakers voted on one, in 2011, it failed 261-165, with 25 Democrats backing the bill.
Speaker Paul Ryan was one of only four Republicans to oppose the measure at the time. It is unclear whether he will do so again this year. He said the proposal before the House then could have led to higher taxes to pay for more spending.
A balanced budget amendment would tightly restrict federal spending and require two-thirds of lawmakers to approve any tax changes. Critics argue it would trigger hundreds of billions in across-the-board cuts.
Ironically, a balanced budget amendment would have potentially prevented the GOP Congress’ biggest legislative achievement this year: tax reform. With the amendment, Republicans could not have enacted tax cuts that weren’t paid for; these ones were not. The GOP also probably couldn’t have gotten the huge budget increase for the Pentagon that was included in the omnibus.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Tuesday that he might follow suit on a balanced budget amendment vote. He said a vote is “likely … at some point.”
Democrats are blasting Republicans for what House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called a “political stunt.” The Maryland Democrat on Tuesday said Republicans are “worried” about the midterm elections and “they’re flailing about.”
“It sounds to me very much,” he said, “like they’re … saying one thing and doing another, speaking out of both sides of their mouth.”
Heather Caygle and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.