The law, which expires in 2021, was designed to control spending at federal agencies by setting automatic caps. The cuts were intentionally steep, designed to convince Republicans and Democrats to come together to raise taxes and rein in entitlement spending, politically unpopular ideas on both sides.
Instead, after some periodic tinkering around the BCA’s edges, the national debt has grown from $14 trillion in 2011 to more than $21 trillion and mounting. Spending on mandatory programs such as Medicare and Medicaid skyrocketed, while revenue was slashed by the GOP’s 2017 tax cut.
Don’t blame the BCA for these problems. The failure of runaway national debt rests with an all-too-familiar suspect: the politically weak spines in Congress. And the biggest deficit of all might be political trust, leaving little hope for anyone to tackle the issue.
By 2021 — the 10th year of the BCA — federal agency budgets will add up to about the same amount as they did in 2011, a little less than $1.4 trillion.
“This is about a lack of political will to address fundamental issues,” Van Hollen said.
“It seems like nobody cares,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), a key GOP negotiator in 2011.
Now, with the BCA’s spending caps disappearing, lawmakers will have nothing left to force them to negotiate on these issues.
The BCA was born after the elusive grand bargain pursued by Barack Obama, the Democratic president, and John A. Boehner (Ohio), the Republican House speaker, fell apart.
Over the summer of 2011, Obama and Boehner pursued a $4 trillion debt deal, getting close to a package that would have contained at least $800 billion in tax hikes and $3 trillion in spending cuts, including significant changes to Medicare and Social Security.
But House conservatives revolted over the tax increases.
With just hours to spare before breaching the federal debt limit and a possible default, Congress instead approved the more limited BCA.
It imposed spending caps that were intended to produce $900 billion in savings. A “super committee” was given special powers to come up with more savings from a mix of higher taxes and entitlement changes.
The committee — made up of 12 lawmakers, including Van Hollen and Toomey — turned out to be not-so-super. Not a single consensus idea emerged.
The BCA was supposed to impose a punishment for the committee’s failure. Unless they could come up with a better plan, the BCA was designed to impose harsh automatic cuts to federal agency budgets, known as the sequester. Half came from the national security budgets and half from domestic agencies.
No one believed the sequester would actually happen. Republicans treasured defense spending too much; Democrats favored funding on education, medical research and infrastructure.
At some point, the thinking went, the two sides would resume talks on some grand bargain rather than just keep hacking away at their favorite agency budgets.
But that never happened. Instead, every two years or so, Congress adjusted the BCA so the agency spending cuts would not be so steep.
That’s not to say it had no impact.
“Nobody can tell me that the caps didn’t control spending. You don’t have to go very far to talk to any agency head around here to tell you if it has had an effect of reducing and putting constraints on their own operations,” said William Hoagland, a budget expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the former top budget aide for Senate Republicans.
Deficits did drop significantly, thanks in part to a tax deal on New Year’s Day 2013 that raised rates on the highest income earners. From 2011 through 2015, annual deficits fell from more than $1 trillion to about $400 billion.
According to estimates, discretionary spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product hit 8.7 percent in 2011 and fell to 6.3 percent in 2019.
But the deficit reduction resembled one of those fashionable diets during which people quickly loose weight without really healthy, long-term transformation. Without real exercise and healthy eating, the fat comes back.
That’s especially the case here because federal agency budgets, known as discretionary spending, make up only a third of government spending.
Then came the 2017 GOP tax cut, which, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, will ring up another $1.5 trillion in debt.
Democrats saw that as the breach from which no real bipartisan debt talks could emerge, a hypocritical moment that exposed the emptiness of the GOP’s talk about deficits.
“It was all a bit of a fraud to begin with,” Van Hollen said.
Toomey pushed back on Democrats, whose presidential candidates are advocating large expansions of Medicare that don’t fully address the “structural deficit” caused by the aging population’s reliance on the health program.
“I’m very disappointed that there is no will whatsoever, no interest, in reforming the big entitlement programs,” he said.
Hoagland also sees a personality crisis for deficit hawks, a once-prominent group that is now, literally, a dying breed. His mentor, Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), died in 2017 after serving as the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee in the 1980s and ’90s.
Alice Rivlin, a close friend of Hoagland’s who served in Democratic administrations and pushed for deficit reductions, died in May.
Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the former Senate majority leader who supported several deficit deals in the 1980s and 1990s, hosted a birthday party at his Watergate home on Wednesday. He turned 96.
In today’s Congress, no one has claimed that mantle.
“I don’t see them. I don’t know where, I don’t know who they are,” Hoagland said. “It’s not a popular position to take politically right now.”