Is a budget-busting bill boosting just about every federal agency really the last big act of Congress before the November midterm elections?
This is, after all, a Congress controlled by a party that swept into power eight years ago on an anti-spending, anti-big-government wave.
“You know, there are a lot of discussions about the fact that maybe the Republican Party has lost its soul,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is retiring, said in a floor speech hours before the vote Friday morning.
There is no rule that says Congress can’t do more this year. But the $1.3 trillion spending bill is probably lawmakers’ last major achievement as they observe what has become a tradition in these hyperpartisan times, settling into gridlock and girding themselves for the midterm elections.
The more than 2,200-page spending bill — and signed by President Trump — gave the Pentagon its biggest spending increase in 15 years, a top GOP priority. But it also included full funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, despite Trump’s initial proposal to cut its funding from $465 million to $15 million.
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who opposed the bill, pointed to the Federal Reserve’s hike of a key interest rate this past week. He warned that the benefits from the additional spending will hit taxpayers with larger debt and the financing of the more than $20 trillion debt.
“You’re going to eat that up in an interest payment in seconds, given the nature of where the rates are going,” he said.
Plenty of Republicans disagreed with that sentiment. More than 60 percent of Republicans in the House and the Senate voted for the legislation, a sign that the GOP might be returning to its big-spending ways of early last decade.
Back then, amid a major ramp-up in defense spending at the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans accepted big increases in domestic spending as well and created a new entitlement within Medicare. GOP leaders at the time exploded the earmark system, allowing even the lowliest rank-and-file lawmakers to direct millions of dollars to pet projects in their districts. Republicans believed the big spending helped shore up their incumbents’ standing back home.
By 2006, however, several lawmakers got caught up in FBI corruption investigations involving earmarks-for-favors allegations, one of several factors that helped Democrats win the congressional majorities in the midterms that year.
Republicans changed their stance when Barack Obama won the presidency, disavowing these pet projects and embracing the issue of reducing the debt. After winning the House majority in the 2010 midterms, GOP lawmakers forced a major fiscal showdown with Obama that ended with the Budget Control Act of 2011. That law was supposed to cut federal spending by nearly $1 trillion through a decade of spending limits to federal agency budgets.
Now, the Republican-led decision to bust those caps for the next two years raises the specter that the tough talk on deficits applied only when Democrats held the White House.
“Had the 2016 election gone a different way and we had a Democratic president, and we controlled the House and Senate, I can’t imagine us being in a situation where we would vote tonight or tomorrow for a bill that’s going to add $2 trillion in debt,” Corker said.
This time, though, most Republicans embraced the big spending, with one invoking Trump’s name as the main reason for his support.
“House Passes President Trump’s America First Government Funding Bill”
was the title of a news release from the office of Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), a staunch conservative whose appointment to the House Appropriations Committee earlier this decade seemed to signal that the days of big spending were coming to an end.
Republican after Republican issued news releases touting victories worth millions, sometimes hundreds of millions in federal funding to local projects. Graves, for instance, praised the $103 million directed toward a new project at a Georgia air base and $50 million to help the expansion of the Savannah port.
The political question going forward is whether this spending will help Republicans in the fall as they face an angry electorate. The projects are the sorts that might help with middle-of-the-road voters who want the government to function.
But the conservative base has spent more than a decade railing against big government spending. While Trump begrudgingly signed the legislation, citing the needed military spending, he voiced deep reservations about some of the soaring agency funding.
If those right-wing activists sit out the election, Republicans could be in deep trouble.
Of course, the debt and deficit has plummeted as a top issue for voters in the past five years.
Even budget hawks such as Corker and Reed voted in December for the massive tax-cut plan that will add $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next decade. Reed explained that he thinks the tax cuts will lead to more economic growth, which will make up for the lost revenue.
“Growth is a part of this solution. What’s disappointing is the spending is a different kind of impact on the deficit. That’s a direct bean-counting effect,” Reed said.
Corker had initially objected to the tax-cut legislation because of its estimated effect on the debt. Later, just before the final vote in December, he changed his mind and supported the plan.
By Thursday night, as the debate unfolded on the massive spending bill, Corker returned to his roots as a deficit hawk, stunned by how many Republicans were willing to support such a pork-filled measure.
“I could not be more discouraged about where we are today with our adult leadership here in Congress and at the White House,” he said. “This is one of the most grotesque pieces of legislation I can remember.”