Fifteen months ago, Republicans running to reclaim control of Congress pledged to cut discretionary federal spending to 2008 levels and defeat any effort to raise taxes. Their “Pledge to America” contained more than two-dozen provisions, from repealing President Obama’s health care reforms to overhauling the budget process.
Cutting taxes while slashing spending and reining in regulations, they said, would spur economic growth and lower the nation’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, which was the primary concern of most Americans. The Republicans called the pledge “a plan to create jobs, end economic uncertainty and make America more competitive.”
Mid-way through the 112th Congress, the Republicans who won control of the House and installed John Boehner of Ohio as Speaker have largely succeeded in their key objectives, in the face of opposition from President Obama and the Democrats who still control the Senate.
Federal taxes for all wage earners are lower today than they were in September 2010. Republicans have thwarted efforts by President Obama and the Democrats to raise tax rates on the well-to-do. In addition, this year’s federal spending outside of Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs is capped at a level that in inflation-adjusted dollars is less than what was spent in 2008, the year before the Great Recession began.
“Give ‘em a check mark for taxes, and they’ve certainly held the line on discretionary spending,” said Todd DeHaven, a budget analyst for the Cato Institute, which champions limited government.
To be sure, the Republicans fell far short of fulfilling many of their pledges, and get failing grades or incompletes on pledges ranging from achieving housing financial reform to chipping away at the new health care reform law to banning special-interest spending earmarks. But on their signature promises to block tax increases, scale back spending and block or eliminate what they term “job killing” government regulations, the GOP can boast solid grades.
They did great on the subjects they cared about,
but failed miserably at all the minor subjects
and extracurricular activities.
We’re pretty close to getting to the inflation-adjusted levels [on spending] of 2008,”said Jason Peuquet, a budget analyst with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Even some of their opponents admit the Republicans radically transformed the debate in Washington over the past year and achieved many of their key objectives. But they put a very different spin on the achievement – arguing that the GOP drive to cut spending and reduce the deficit has contributed to a slow economic recovery and persistently high unemployment rates.
“They did what they promised and it’s deadly to the economy,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “They had quite a success in forcing the Democrats to talk exclusively about debt reduction for months and months and that kills jobs. Their austerity agenda kills jobs and growth.”
The Fiscal Times looked at 15 key provisions of the pledge to determine whether the Republican House achieved its agenda. In many ways, their final grade looks like the report card brought home by a science nerd: they did great on the subjects they cared about, but failed miserably at all the minor subjects and extracurricular activities.
GOP's September 2010 "Pledge to America"
Permanently stop all tax increases, including the imminent expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts
Lame-duck Congress in Dec. 2010 passed and President Obama signed an extension of the tax cuts until January 2013.
Cut spending to 2008 levels except for the military, veterans and seniors
The Budget Control Act, signed by the president in August to end the debt ceiling crisis, projects FY2012 discretionary spending before war spending at $1.043 trillion, just $50 billion higher than 2008. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that's a reduction
Cut small business taxes by 20 percent
No action. The lame duck Congress did pass 100% expensing of capital investment for 2011, a smaller break for expanding businesses
Require Congressional approval for all regulations over $100 million in cost
House passed the "Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny" or REINS Act in early December. Democrats in the Senate and White House are opposed
Repeal reporting requirements on expenses over $600
The House and Senate passed repeal of the so-called "1099 law," which was signed into law last April
Cancel unspent money in $797 billion stimulus bill
On Feb. 19, House passed H.R. 1, a full-year appropriations bill that included rescinding unspent stimulus money. The Senate never considered it.
Establish hard budget caps on discretionary spending
The Budget Control Act sets budgetary caps tha increase from $1,043 billion in 2012 to $1,234 billion in 2021.
Cut Congress' budget
On Jan. 6, 2011, by a 410-13 margin, the House cut Congressional appropriations by 5 percent or about $35 million a year.
End Toxic Assets Relief Program
Legislation to repeal TARP was introduced in Jan. 2011, but no action has been taken.
End government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and shrink their mortgage portfolios
At least 14 bills limiting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac powers have been sent to the House Financial Services Committee, and several have been marked up. None passed in the House
Freeze federal hiring
According to the Office of Personnel Managmenet, there were 2,130,289 federal workers in all agencies in September 2011, up from 2,113,210 in September 2010
Repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
In a largely symbolic vote, the House voted to repeal PPACA, which is derisively called "Obamacare" by Republicans, in a 245-189 vote with 3 Democrats joining all Republicans in voting against the bill. It was not considered by the Senate.
Enact medical liability reform
H.R. 5, which set caps on medical malpractice claims, passed several committees, but never received a House vote.
End practice of packaging unpopular bills with "must pass" legislation
Most recently, House and Senate Republicans pushed linking the Keystone pipeline to extending the payroll tax reduction
Pass clean troop funding bills with pork barrel projects
This year’s defense authorization bill has 115 earmarks worth $834 million, including 20 by Republican freshmen who campaigned against earmarks for pet projects
A spokesman for Boehner noted Monday that the Republicans never promised that everything in the pledge would be enacted into law, only that the GOP-controlled House would approve the measures. “Even though Democrats still run most of Washington, House Republicans have fought to keep our Pledge to America and will continue to in the coming year,” the spokesman said.
They held the line on taxes and sharply cut discretionary budgets. They rescinded an expenditure reporting requirement that might prove burdensome to small business. And they cut their own House operating budgets.
But the Republicans in the House at one point passed legislation that would have loaded up the military spending bill with more than a hundred earmarks – a practice they promised to ban. Those special-pleading spending measures were later dropped.
GOP lawmakers also promised to end the parliamentary sleight-of-hand practice of tacking controversial or unpopular legislation onto “must pass” bills. One need look no further than their insistence on including a provision speeding up the review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on legislation extending the payroll tax cut to find evidence of their violating that pledge.
They get failing grades for a raft of promises in the pledge that died because of neglect in the House. Legislation that would repeal remaining mortgage relief elements in the Toxic Assets Relief Program, which was enacted in the waning days of the Bush administration, went nowhere as did bills to end control of government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Even the long-standing GOP pledge to enact caps on medical malpractice claims never received a full House vote.
The House did pass a number of bills that fulfilled elements of the pledge, but the votes were largely symbolic since Boehner and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made no effort to win Democratic support. The full House repealed the Patient and Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and voted to rescind money that is still in the pipeline from the February 2009 American Recovery and Reconstruction Act, better known as the stimulus bill.
Another area where Republicans get an incomplete grade is in freezing the federal workforce. Total federal employment in September 2011 is slightly higher than it was a year ago, according to the Office of Personnel Management. However, most analysts say that number will begin to shrink sharply in the coming year as the Budget Control Act, passed in August to end the debt-ceiling impasse, takes full effect. Those cuts, like the elimination of over 500,000 state and local government jobs in the past year, will offset gains in the private sector and retard the economic recovery.