Republicans Risk Showdown by Changing Budget Deal
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The Fiscal Times
March 14, 2012

Budget reform is in the air again in Washington, with lawmakers brainstorming all kinds of ways to make a badly broken system work better. Ideas range from the perennial of switching from a one-year to a two-year budget cycle, providing Congress with more time for oversight and deliberation, all the way to docking lawmakers’ pay for every day a budget is not in force.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Jim Cooper, (D-Tenn.), are pushing a bipartisan “No Budget No Pay Act” that would halt all lawmakers’ paychecks if the House and Senate fail to jointly agree on a budget resolution by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Considering that Congress regularly fails to agree on a joint budget resolution and operates instead by continuing resolutions, this could be a pretty costly measure if approved by Congress.

But here’s another good idea that doesn’t require legislation or rule making: make a deal and then stick with it.

That idea springs to mind following a report Tuesday that House Republicans are getting ready to unveil a budget plan for fiscal 2013 that would alter the hard-won deficit reduction plan forged last summer by the White House and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to avert the first default on U.S. debt in history.

Apparently, with an eye to burnishing their conservative bonafides in an election year, prominent House GOP leaders and members want to set domestic discretionary spending for the coming year below the $1.047 trillion cap that was set by the budget deal last summer, The New York Times reported. House Budget Committee Republicans met privately with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., last week to try to establish new spending levels for government programs, other than entitlements, below the agreed-to caps. The Republicans are seeking an additional $16 billion to $18 billion in cuts, according to one source.

This move – which appears to have the blessing of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – is upsetting   House and Senate Democrats who believe in the old adage that “a deal is a deal.” Some moderate Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee who are facing tough reelections also want to honor the agreement forged with President Obama as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. “We voted for it. That’s the number we should use,” said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. A spokesman for Boehner confirmed today that the speaker is behind the move by quoting a Webster’s dictionary definition of a cap as “an upper limit (as on expenditures)” and a “ceiling.”

“The caps are just that – caps,” Michael Steel, Boehner’s press secretary, told The Fiscal Times. “They define the upper limit. Going beneath – saving more taxpayer dollars – is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

True enough. But one need only recall the painfully chaotic and bitterly partisan months of negotiations leading up to the debt ceiling and deficit reduction deal last July to have second thoughts about a do-over. President Obama stalked out of a White House meeting with Cantor and other leaders after tensions flared. “He shoved back and said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and walked out,”  Cantor told reporters after the meeting.

And later that month Boehner walked away from negotiations with the White House, and then had trouble rallying his rebellious conservative and tea party troops behind any plan.  And even after an eleventh hour deal was negotiated in late July, Standard & Poor’s Credit rating agency the next week downgraded the U.S. government’s prized AAA status – a major humiliation for government leaders.

Moreover, the government is facing the prospects of $1.2 trillion of automatic cuts in domestic and defense spending or revenue increases over the coming decade -- the dreaded system of “sequestration” – because a “Super Committee” of House and Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators couldn’t agree on how to make those savings.

“I do not understand their fascination with government shutdowns and looking dysfunctional,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said of the House Republicans budget maneuvering.

Steve Bell, Senior Director of Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that the Republicans stand to gain relatively little “for the legislative and political pain” their efforts will cause. He said Congress should stick with the spending levels agreed to last summer in the Budget Control Act (BCA).

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.