Can the House GOP Live Within Its Own Budget?

Yesterday, the House of Representatives pulled the annual spending bill that funds the Transportation Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development (THUD Bill) from its calendar because the chance it would be passed by the Republican-controlled House was low.

 “The prospects for passing this bill in September are bleak at best, given the vote count on passage that was apparent this afternoon,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a statement.

Rogers pointed to the House GOP’s embrace of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, which cuts discretionary spending deeply, as the root problem.

“With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration – and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts – must be brought to an end,” Rogers said.

This is the second appropriations bill to go down in the last two weeks. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee pulled the appropriations bill that funds the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS-Ed Bill) from consideration.

The Labor-HHS-Ed Bill was slated to receive an 18.6 percent cut in Fiscal Year 2014 from Fiscal Year 2013 levels that included the impact of sequestration – excluding the impact of sequestration, it would be a deeper 22.2 percent cut.

It and some other bills were to receive deep cuts because the House GOP broke with agreed-upon budget levels set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sought increases for the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, military construction, and veterans affairs, as well (note: there is also broad support by Democrats for increased veterans spending).

In order to do so, and stay within overall budget levels, the House GOP made reductions elsewhere even bigger. The White House issued a veto threat over the House defense appropriations bill because of its consequences for other appropriations bills.

But the Labor-HHS-Ed bill is going nowhere, for now at least. Even though many of the programs funded by it are unpopular with conservatives – especially in the Labor and Education Departments – the House GOP still must have found it hard to find enough political support within its caucus for cuts that deep.

“Republicans endorsed the vague outlines of Ryan’s budget early in the year. But now they’re realizing they can’t pass the documents that make those cuts specific – they’re simply too deep. But they can’t back out of the Ryan budget, either,” according to Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas at The Washington Post’s Wonkbook. “The result is a mess – although one that may make at least a few Republicans, including Hal Rogers, more eager for a face-saving budget deal in the fall.”

The THUD Bill, on the other hand, was projected to receive a 1.6 percent increase from FY 2013 sequestered levels – yet is still a substantial 5.3 percent drop from where FY 2013 levels would be without sequestration and would have been 18 percent lower than the Senate's bill. Even though the cuts for the THUD Bill were not as deep as those for its Labor-HHS-Ed Bill, the House GOP even found it difficult to stay within those numbers.

One potential factor is there is significant support from business and many conservatives for increased transportation spending. “Constitutional conservatives recognize that not all government expenditures are equal,” the American Conservative Union wrote in a confidential memo outlining a campaign to support transportation and defense spending according to The New York Times. “These investments are core, constitutional federal responsibilities and should be so treated in the allocation of federal resources.”

With an influential chairman of the House’s top spending committee calling House GOP cuts unrealistic and two major appropriations bills apparently failing to win enough political support from the GOP to win passage in the chamber they control, many are questioning the House GOP’s ability to govern.

Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo summed up the potential ramifications:

All of this is a harbinger for the coming fight over funding the government. If House Republicans can’t establish a position of their own, then the Senate will drive the whole process (its Transportation/HUD bill will probably pass on a bipartisan basis this week) and appropriations will be extended past September one way or another on the strength of Democratic votes.

It also suggests that the GOP’s preference for permanent sequestration-level spending, particularly relative to increasing taxes, is not politically viable. If they want to lift the defense cuts, they’re going to have to either return to budget negotiations with Democrats, or agree to rescind sequestration altogether.

But it raises much bigger, existential questions for the Republicans as a national party. If they can’t execute key elements of their governing agenda, even just to establish their negotiating positions opposite the Democrats, what can they do, and what argument can they possibly make for controlling more (or all) of Washington?

Unless a new deal is struck to replace sequestration in whole or in part, or a new legal framework replaces the Budget Control Act, the most likely scenario moving forward is that continuing resolutions fund the government, or most of it, and sequestration is in effect for next year, as well.

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