From a divided and acrimonious conference at odds with its speaker and its base, the House Republicans have gotten their act together. The latest evidence of a unified and smart governing approach was the lopsided vote 267-151 in favor of a continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year. On the House majority’s side were more than 50 Democrats and most of the speaker’s right-wing critics (only 14 Republicans defected).
In addition to achieving political unity and cashing in on the sequester (e.g. adopting the sequester cuts for the rest of the fiscal year), the House made some wise adjustments.
The bill is a continuing resolution for most federal agencies, but for the Defense Department (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs, it includes a full appropriations bill. That language gives the DOD some flexibility in dealing with the sequester, by shifting $10.4 billion to the operations and maintenance budget.
The bill tries to cushion the effects of sequestration in some non-military areas.
It adds $2 billion for embassy security in the wake of last September’s attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and provides $363 million more for nuclear security and $129 million more for FBI salaries, among other things.
It also includes other policy mandates, including a prohibition on the use of funds to move Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States and a freeze on federal worker pay.
House Speaker John Boehner cajoled the Senate:
Today the House has taken the first step towards assuring the American people that the federal government will stay open, which President Obama agrees should be our shared goal. This legislation is straightforward and reasonable, protecting national defense and helping our veterans while maintaining the president’s sequester, which Republicans continue to support replacing because there are better ways to cut spending. The Senate should pass the House measure without delay so we can continue focusing on helping Americans get back to work and putting the country on a path to a balanced budget.
The effort completes a trifecta of smart moves by the House Republicans. First, they minimized the damage from the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Next, they held firm despite the White House caterwauling and media hyperventilation over the sequester. And now they’ve sought to defend defense and keep the government operating. In the past the House hasn’t gotten the right mix of flexibility and spine and surely hasn’t won the public relations effort. With these three moves they’ve shown great improvement.
The next step is a budget for the next fiscal year, one that is aided by the addition of the new tax revenue and by the lower sequester spending levels. However, the House right-wingers have insisted on a balanced budget in 10 years.
The Ryan plans also quietly highlight challenges: Slow economic growth + (roughly) historical levels of tax revenues + a promise to spare retirees and near-retirees from Medicare changes = a long road to debt reduction + severe Medicaid cuts + severe discretionary spending cuts. My conclusion is that a) tax revenues and spending levels will in the future probably need to be above historical levels and the levels Ryan targets, b) we cannot settle for the level of GDP growth CBO forecasts, c) entitlement reform ASAP. Ryan has the right ideas — and certainly knows the need for faster growth — but implementation poses major political challenges.
Frankly, by pushing Rep. Paul Ryan into a 10-year deadline (for which there is no particular benefit or significance) and then nixing Ryan’s idea to begin the Medicare premium support plan in nine, rather than 10, years, House Republicans are make it harder on themselves and setting up a budget that will be less enticing than it need otherwise be. Let’s see if the House Republicans build on their successes and learn from them.