A Useful Spending Debate
Republicans in this Congress have failed to tame federal spending—on either entitlements or the discretionary accounts that won a big increase in this year’s omnibus bill. Perhaps they can now impose at least a little restraint on money that the government isn’t even spending.
Congress can claw back spending with a simple majority through a procedure in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, and last week the White House sent such a $15 billion “rescissions” package to Capitol Hill. The Administration proposes cuts, and the accounts are frozen. Congress has 45 days to act, or the spending proceeds.
The package zeros out $4.3 billion from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program, an Energy Department outfit that hasn’t made a loan since 2011. The program lent your tax dollars to the likes of Fisker Automotive, the electric car maker of the Obama years that went bust.
Some $133 million would be cut from a lapsed railroad unemployment insurance program, and $252 million from an Ebola response account, as apparently the money outlived the outbreak. The proposal would cut more than $100 million in Hurricane Sandy funds that states haven’t put up the matching money to tap. The nickels and dimes include farm marketing cash that had been used in at least one case to promote chocolate-covered peanuts, which we’ll eat even without subsidies.
About half the package is a rescission to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Every year Congress dedicates more money to the program than is spent, and appropriators pocket the rest to spend elsewhere. In 2016 Congress appropriated about $23 billion, including a contingency fund, but only spent a bit more than $14 billion. No child will lose health care.
That won’t stop Democrats from claiming the worst, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wasted no time saying Republicans are “looking to tear apart” the program, “hurting middle-class families and low-income children.” Republicans have to call out the Democrats for wanting to keep these funds in reserve so they can spend it later on pork.
The current package avoids cuts from the omnibus bill because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fears that would make it harder to negotiate another deal with Democrats when the budget year ends in September. Mr. McConnell is right that some conservatives are too quick to denounce the tradeoffs in the omnibus bill; a military spending increase was urgently needed. Democrats used the leverage of the 60-vote filibuster to extract more domestic spending in return.
But the GOP now has the leverage of the rescission process to claw some back. This isn’t “reneging” on the deal. Republicans are merely using the tools of the majority to pass their agenda, much as Democrats used the tools of the Senate minority to pass theirs in the omnibus. Democrats will do that again in September no matter what Republicans do on rescissions.
The larger political point is that the GOP has an opportunity to make the sensible case to voters that defending the country is more important than other spending and transfer programs. The Administration says this is the first of “several” rescission packages to come, and if Republicans want to motivate their voters to come out in November they’ll argue for and pass these cuts.