For weeks, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has rolled his eyes at the mention of the emerging Republican budget for fiscal 2016, dismissing it in front of reporters as little more than a gimmicky partisan broadside unworthy of serious discussion.
Corker, who sits on the Senate Budget Committee and chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, has been devoting most of his energies to a bill pending on the Senate floor to provide Congress with authority to review any final agreement between the U.S. and Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Early Tuesday, however, Corker stunned the GOP leadership by refusing to sign a House-Senate conference committee report that is essential to sending the $3.8 trillion budget plan to the House and Senate floors for action this week. The reason? Corker complained that his party’s budget is riven with spending and accounting “gimmicks that produce billions of dollars in fantasy savings,” as Politico reported.
The typically affable Tennessee Republican insisted he would not sign off on the final version of the $3.8 trillion budget plan for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 because it would allow appropriators to continue a long-standing practice of claiming “savings” each year by temporarily imposing limits on certain entitlement programs that are outside their domain.
This byzantine accounting game is known as Changes in Mandatory Programs or CHIMPS, and as far as Corker is concerned, it’s all budgetary monkey business. While some of the changes in mandatory programs, including farm subsidies, crime victims’ funds or the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program achieve real savings, others don’t – or fall far short of their intended goals.
“CHIMPS is a budget gimmick that is $190 billion in extra spending over a 10 year period, and it’s something our caucus all has been for eliminating -- so I have concerns about that,” Corker told reporters at the Capitol yesterday. “What I’d like for our budgeting process to do is to rid itself of a lot of the gimmicks it has used in the past to actually spend a lot more money than people thing we’re spending.”
Corker and Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) both pressed to limit or phase out the CHIMPS accounting maneuver, but House Republicans resisted any immediate changes, according to Politico. Moreover, House Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) vigorously opposed eliminating CHIMP for fear of leaving a gaping hole in some of his appropriations bills.
If Corker is really concerned about budget gimmicks, why stop with CHIMP?
Although the final budget agreement hasn’t been released publicly because of Corker’s temporary roadblock, the preliminary GOP budget plans approved by the House and Senate in March were brimming with accounting tricks.
Enzi and House Budget Committee chief Tom Price (R-GA) both set out to create a long-term balanced budget strategy to slash spending by $5.5 trillion or so and wipe out the current year deficit of $468 billion over the next 10 years -- without raising taxes.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said last month that Price’s approach “takes budget quackery to a new level.” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense denounced the Republicans’ “bald faced attempt to evade the budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as The Fiscal Times previously reported.
The most blatant trick has been to circumvent the 2016 defense-spending cap under the Budget Control Act to placate defense hawks who favor a lot more spending. That would be achieved by slipping the Defense Department an additional $38 billion through an overseas contingency operations account that was created primarily to fund the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq and that is not affected by the cap.
Instead of offsetting the tens of billions of additional spending for “Defense Readiness and Modernization” as fiscal conservatives called for, it would simply be added to the deficit.
The Republican budget architects also engaged in serious double counting on the Affordable Care Act. The new budget once again calls for the repeal of Obamacare and the elimination of the tax increases that help finance the president’s signature health insurance double counting on Obamacare.
Yet the budget assumes the same level of federal revenue over the next 10 years as the Congressional Budget Office forecast with those tax increases in place. Bottom line: the new budget is counting on $1 trillion of tax revenue from a program the Republicans are trying to kill off.
Given the way things generally go on Capitol Hill, the budget ultimately will win approval in the House and Senate, after Corker extracts a few concessions or promises that some of the most blatant gimmicks will be phased out in the coming years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said yesterday that he and other Republican leaders are still hopeful they can vote on the deal before the end of the week. And McConnell is usually right in his forecasts.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: