The most telling thing that happened as Congress scrambled to get out of town for its August recess was the vote that didn’t happen.
On Wednesday, House Republican leaders abruptly yanked a $44 billion transportation spending bill from floor debate. The purported reason was scheduling — a pile of proposed amendments that supposedly made it difficult to finish up in time.
In fact, lawmakers had already disposed of most of that pile. The more plausible reason: The votes weren’t there. The bill cut too much, even for many Republicans to stomach — despite the fact that they had passed a budget requiring cuts of that size. When it came time to put their mouths (and votes) where the money wasn’t, lawmakers balked.
A bit of budget history: In the 2011 Budget Control Act, the deal that resolved the last debt-ceiling crisis, Congress and the administration agreed to tight caps on discretionary spending, reducing projected spending by about $900 billion over the next decade. The failure of the supercommittee to come up with $1.2 trillion in additional savings triggered across-the-board cuts (sequestration).
To mitigate the damaging effects of the sequester on national security programs, House Republicans did some shifting around. They replaced nearly $50 billion in defense and national security spending and, to make up the difference, sliced even more deeply into the domestic side.
Appropriators, both Democrats and Republicans, warned that this would be unworkable. The transportation bill, the first fully domestic spending measure for fiscal 2014 to get to the floor, proved them right.
Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, whose unpleasant task as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was to stay within the Procrustean limits, was unsparing in his assessment.
“With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago,” Rogers said. “Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration — and its unrealistic, ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”
House Republican leaders gamely vowed to take up the transportation measure next month, but Rogers declared its prospects to be “bleak at best, given the vote count on passage that was apparent this afternoon.”
Indeed, the measure was beset on all sides. Some House Republicans are so extreme that no domestic spending bill can cut enough to satisfy them.
Others, the remaining band of what passes for moderates in the conservative House, could not stomach the cuts to programs such as Amtrak, infrastructure grants for cities and low-income housing.
The lesson here is that it’s easy to spout grand pronouncements about reining in runaway spending, far harder to choose precisely what to slash, especially after several lean years.
The size of the transportation spending bill has fallen from $67.9 billion in fiscal 2010, the last time Democrats were in the House majority, to $55.5 billion in 2012 and $51.8 billion in 2013.
Once the sequester was triggered, the number fell even further, to $48.5 billion. Wringing an additional $4.4 billion out of the budget proved a cut too far.
This is a cautionary tale with bipartisan application. Democrats may have a more realistic assessment of how much can be cut, but even without the sequester, the discretionary spending caps will be difficult to translate from preaching into practice.
As the Congressional Budget Office has noted, with just those caps in place, discretionary spending would fall to 5.8 percent of the economy in 2023, lower than any share since the government began reporting the data that way in 1962. The previous low was 6.2 percent in 1999.
Will lawmakers in 2023 really be willing to take spending to the levels vowed by their predecessors a decade earlier? Would that be wise?
The House dysfunction had its depressing corollary in the Senate, where a brief outbreak of bipartisanship was interrupted, courtesy of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Democrat Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Susan Collins of Maine pieced together a $54 billion transportation spending measure that won the support of six Republicans when it was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
But by the time the bill limped to a cloture vote Thursday, Collins was the sole Republican vote in favor.
“Think very carefully about this vote,” she pleaded with her colleagues. “It will be so unfortunate if we go home to our constituents in August and are forced to tell them that we’re unable to do our job.”
Perhaps August will be chastening. The events of July do not offer much hope.