The Biggest Budget Player You Don't Know About
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By Josh Boak,
The Fiscal Times
March 4, 2013

By many counts, Chris Chocola gained more influence on Capitol Hill after losing his Indiana congressional seat more than six years ago.

He resurfaced in 2009 as the president of the Club for Growth—the conservative economic group at the center of the ongoing budget showdown with President Obama. The club helps to fund primary campaigns for candidates who slash spending and keep taxes low, making it either a valuable friend or dangerous foe for dozens of GOP lawmakers.

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“Having the opportunity to support several candidates through our PAC is more satisfying than being a single member with a single vote,” the 51-year old Chocola told The Fiscal Times in an interview. “Much of politics is looking like you’re doing something, rather than actually doing something. And that’s not very satisfying. It’s more satisfying and I think—personally for me—being at the club rather than being a member.”

Perhaps no outside organization will yield more influence than the Club for Growth as the White House and congressional leaders try to hammer out a deal on the deficit, the debt ceiling, and the future of the federal budget. The 14-year old organization officially did not spend a penny lobbying last cycle, but it showered more than $17.96 million on favorite candidates and leveraged direct contributions from its network of members, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Few groups yield as much insight into the partisan deadlock that caused $85 billion worth of sequestered budget cuts that began this past weekend—despite warnings from the administration and congressional leaders of the economic destruction it would unleash. If you want to understand the ideological and structural hurdle for sorting out the budget, it seems foolish to ignore the club. Several noted economists regard the kind of rapid deficit reduction promoted by the club as counterproductive to the economy, but they lack the same direct line to voters.

Chocola considers sequestration a “win,” but he’s not resting on his laurels. The club launched PrimaryMyCongressman.com last week to target nine GOP lawmakers who hail from conservative districts but have lifetime ratings below 69 percent, based on the organization’s scorecard of their votes.

“We think it’s important that members of Congress know that they’re constituents are watching and they are gauging whether what they say and what they do are consistent,” Chocola said.

When announcing the sequester, Obama pretty much pegged Republican congressmen who identify with the club—without using its name—as the cause of the budget debacle. The president supports deficit savings through increased tax revenues and lifting the government’s borrowing authority before it lapses in May.

“I recognize that it's very hard for Republican leaders to be perceived as making concessions to me,” Obama said Friday at the White House. “Sometimes, I reflect, is there something else I could do to make these guys -- I'm not talking about the leaders now, but maybe some of the House Republican caucus members -- not paint horns on my head.”

The president says he hopes that constituents will pressure their representatives into a deal.

But when talking with Chocola, it becomes clear that the differences are as much philosophical as personal.

He is prepared to call for blocking a debt ceiling increase, unless there is a budget agreement that generates a surplus in ten years, keeps the sequester in place, and defunds Obamacare—the health insurance initiative that looks like the president’s legacy.

“You can’t raise the debt ceiling unless the House does it,” Chocola said. “There’s lots of hand-wringing about default. Default is not possible. So any serious discussion about it would not include the concept of defaulting on principle and interest, because it just wouldn’t happen. But there would be disruptions. And there would be bills that would not be paid. But the pain that is associated with that type of situation pales in comparison to continuing on the path we’re on.”

That perspective is controversial. Standard & Poor’s cited that precise idea as the basis for stripping the government of its top-notch credit rating after the previous debt ceiling talks were settled in 2011.

Chocola sees the group’s ideas as gaining currency, despite the re-election of Obama last November. GOP lawmakers who once dreaded the sequester have now shrugged it off as a positive that stabilizes the debt load over the next decade, a down payment on reducing the $16.4 trillion national debt.

Republican leaders have bent to their demands, with Boehner endorsing a budget—its details yet to be public—that would supposedly deliver a government surplus by 2023, about two decades ahead of their past proposals.

“A year ago right now, a member of the Republican leadership came to our annual conference,” Chocola said. “I asked the question, will you offer a budget that balances within the ten-year budget window? And the answer was, no, no way, no how. We can’t do that. This year, the Republican leadership says they’re going to do that. That’s progress.”

Plenty of club sympathizers already serve on Capitol Hill—with Republican House members bucking their leadership based in part on statements issued by the club. It opposed last year Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” to minimize the size of the tax hike caused by the fiscal cliff, effectively killing the measure.

The club rejected the ultimate cliff deal with Obama at the start of this year because it included a tax rate increase on household incomes above $450,000—and 151 GOP congressmen defected from Boehner to vote against it.

And at the end of January, 179 House Republicans rejected a $51 billion relief package for the victims of Superstorm Sandy at the club’s behest because the bill did not include offsetting spending cuts.

What drives the club is a unique paradox. It exposes dozens of members to the threat of losing re-election in order to push them into taking stands that can be unpopular with their own supporters. Balancing the budget in a decade will likely require substantial reductions to Medicare for current beneficiaries—possibly upsetting their senior citizen base. Half of GOP voters say their congressional leaders are doing “too little” to compromise with Obama, according to a Jan. 16 Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Chocola believes the eagerness to be liked has led congressmen astray. They become reluctant to reduce spending, a goal that is far more difficult than holding the line against tax increases.

When asked about the abysmally low favorability ratings for Congress—15.4 percent at last count by Real Clear Politics—Chocola says that all the expenditures have yet to meaningfully boost Capitol Hill’s reputation.

“The biggest lesson is that politicians’ desire—in general—to be popular is why we have a $16 trillion debt,” Chocola said. “I’m not sure when in history Congress has ever been popular. So I don’t know that this is really any different.”

The irony—as pointed out by critics of the club—is that Chocola himself voted to raise the debt ceiling as a congressman in 2004 that did not contain any spending cuts. His lifetime rating in the club was 92 percent. The difference, now, he maintains is that the scope of the problem and the need to address it has evolved.

“If you talk to people on the Hill, they may offer you the hypocrisy angle on my voting record,” Chocola said. “When I left Congress in January of 2007, our annual deficit was $168 billion. Today, it’s [$1.1 trillion.] The national debt was under $5 trillion. Today, it’s $16 trillion. So the world has changed and I think that has gotten the attention of the average American more so than it has in the past because the stakes are higher.”