The G.O.P. And the Federal Budget: Piecemeal Approach Is The Key

BY Glen Tschirgi
3 years, 5 months ago

Peter Ferrara has an opinion piece at Pajamas Media that urges the Republican leadership in the House to “get over” their fear of a government shutdown and get on with meaningful cuts to the budget.  Ferrara urges Rep. John Boehner:

The Republican leadership is losing their own base by displaying too much of a ready willingness to compromise, while Obama and the Democrats are not losing any support from their spending addicted political machine. The Republicans need to go on the offensive to reverse this political dynamic.

They must pass a continuing resolution (CR) for the rest of this fiscal year, which goes to September 30, with at least their original $100 billion in budget cuts for the year. No more 2 or 3 week extensions. Then fan out across the country and take their case to the people

Ferrara sees the fight playing out in Republicans’ favor:

That budget needs to inspire the grassroots by taking spending for every budget line item, not just discretionary spending, back to 2007 budget levels, except for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and of course interest on the national debt. That was just 4 years ago and America survived just fine then at those levels of federal spending. That would save roughly $500 billion in year one, and provide the foundation for balancing the entire budget within a reasonable time. The House should pass appropriations bills to implement this budget, and then again fan out across the country and take its case to the people.

This would frame the issue in the Republicans’ favor, for to resist them President Obama, Harry Reid, and the rest of the Democrats would have to publicly fight for higher federal spending, deficits, and debt. The Tea Party would then have its target clearly exposed.

If the Democrats can’t get their act together to pass a reasonable CR for this year and appropriations bills for next year that put the federal budget on a path to balance within a reasonable time, then the government can just shut down and stay shut down until the election, when the people can decide. There are big virtues to shutting the Obama administration down until the election. No funding for the EPA to implement cap and trade by regulation. No funding for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement ObamaCare. ObamaCare implementation funding may have been buried in the ObamaCare bill itself. But without continuing funding to keep the administrative offices open at HHS and elsewhere, there will be no one functioning to carry the implementation out.

In a shutdown impasse, House Republicans can continue to pass CRs and appropriations bills to fund the government, and demand to know why the Democrats won’t do their job and fund essential government services. They can pass bills to fund particular sensitive parts of the government. One bill can fund the federal courts. Another bill can fund the Social Security Administration.

While there is much to recommend Ferrara’s approach, particularly with regards to favoring a bold approach in the face of fiscal crisis, there is still plenty of opportunity for the Democrats to continue their intransigence by insisting that they cannot vote for a bill that cuts this vital program or fails to fund that urgently-needed priority.   So long as the Republicans present complete budgets to the Democrats, the Democrats can simply pick them apart as mean-spirited, devastating to the poor and disadvantaged, etc…  Worse, Ferrara’s approach still allows Democrats to claim that the Republicans are forcing a government shutdown by insisting on “draconian” cuts that will hurt the common person.

But Ferrara may have, unintentionally, hit on the key to drastically reducing the size and expense of the federal government.   In fact, it is a better and smarter way, politically, to achieve significant reductions in spending and put the big-spenders in D.C. on the defensive.

Republicans in the House need to fund the federal government in a completely upside-down manner, and they need to do this not only for 2011 but also for 2012 and, perhaps, beyond until some mechanism is put into place that can reliably shrink the federal government.   The solution is to stop funding the government with comprehensive, unitary budgets and, instead, as Ferrara alludes to as a sort of desperate measure, fund the government in piecemeal fashion with bills that fund specific government departments or activities.

As things stand, the Republicans in the House have been hitting a brick wall when it comes to passing a comprehensive, 2011 budget.   As Ferrara well notes, this was the work of the previous Congress run by Nancy Pelosi and they failed miserably despite having majorities in both chambers and the White House.   Whether one believes that a government shutdown is disastrous or not, it is clear that the GOP approach so far is not going to achieve any serious reductions in the 2011 budget.   Ferrara cites the horrific deficit numbers, so I will not repeat them here.   The GOP House has been forced to agree to temporary, continuing resolutions to keep the government funded on an ad hoc basis.

Instead, Boehner should flip the funding process on its head and abandon the comprehensive approach.  Rather than presenting one, unitary budget with spending cuts reflected in it, Boehner should present to the floor of the House a whole series of individual bills that fund only those essential functions of government that must be funded.  And the funding bills should be presented in order of political priority.

So, for example, the first funding bill to come up would be funding for Social Security for the balance of the 2011 budget year.  Let the Democrats in the Senate try to explain to the public why they are voting against Social Security.   They will cave in a heartbeat.  Just as liberal Senators, in the end, caved in on voting for military funding for the Iraq war in 2007, although they denounced the war as a lost cause and a crime against humanity, they knew that they could not face re-election having voted to deny our soldiers and marines the materiel needed in the midst of combat.  Same thing applies here.

Boehner and the majority in the House would continue to line up single funding bills in similar fashion:  for the Defense Department, for Medicare, for Veterans Affairs, for payment of interest on the national debt — there goes that favorite argument about raising the debt ceiling.

In short, this is a historic opportunity for the GOP to fund only those federal activities that are clearly necessary and Constitutionally prescribed.

Everything else never gets a vote.

The Department of Education?  No funding bill.  Note how this completely changes the debate.  According to the Department of Education’s own website, the Department oversees a budget of slightly more than $69 Billion.  Presumably this includes not only the cost of personnel but also programs such as the popular Pell Grant.   According to Higher Ed Watch the Pell Grant program grew from $14 Billion in 2008 to over $40 Billion for 2011.   If the GOP House took a piecemeal approach to government funding, it could easily introduce a bill that would fund the Pell Grant program at the 2008 levels and package it as a block grant of sorts to the States for each State to administer, saving the costs of federal administration.

Notice how completely different this equation is from a budgeting approach that automatically includes the Department of Education within an overall budget but seeks to cut its funding down to $14 Billion.   It effectively de-couples those who want an ever-larger budget for the Department of Education from those who do not care as much about education but strongly resist any cuts to the Federal Communications Commission.   It effectively splits the forces of the big-spenders.

Even better, piecemeal budgeting allows the House to specifically fund those programs that it finds appropriate and necessary without funding programs that are wasteful, better left to the States or are contrary to Americans’ values and beliefs.   The funding bill can specifically tie release of the funds to only specific activities or programs.

And because the most politically sensitive issues are voted on and approved first, the big spenders are left with fewer and fewer effective funding issues to demagogue.   For instance, once the funding has been set for Social Security, Medicare, Defense, the Courts and other, similar services considered essential, how effective will it be for the big spenders to howl about the House’s refusal to introduce a bill that would renew the $2.4 Million funding to New York state for, “Determining the connectivity among and fine-scale habitat use within Atlantic sturgeon aggregation areas in the Mid-Atlantic Bight: Implications for gear restricted management areas to reduce bycatch.”

Think of this approach as an aquarium tank full of electric eels.   So long as the tank is full of water, the eels can multiply the effect of their sting.  But by passing appropriation bills individually, the water in the tank is steadily drained out.   By the time the major spending bills are passed there are only the puddles of water left along with the eels harmlessly writhing on the floor.

Perhaps the biggest problem all along has been the method used to fund the federal government.  So long as funding is done in large, amorphous chunks, billions of dollars of waste and unneeded programs can slip through and no one is willing to sink the entire budget for the sake of cutting funding for what amounts on an individual level to small amounts.   But once the spending is broken down into individual and more manageable amounts, it is an entirely different matter.

Another huge benefit of the piecemeal approach to funding is where it leaves Senate Democrats who form the majority.   With the House churning out spending bills by the dozen and sending them up to the Senate for approval, the burden of keeping essential government functions instantly passes to the Senate.   If Harry Reid somehow refuses or fails to schedule the bills for a vote or cannot get the votes to pass the bills, then it will be Reid who has caused a shutdown of that government agency.   It is true that Reid could try to modify the bill and call for a committee to reconcile the two bills, but it will be a steep uphill climb for the Democrats to argue in this economic atmosphere that there must be more spending or they will shut down Social Security completely.   The American people are clearly in the mood for fiscal restraint and reduced spending.   Republicans should welcome any opportunity that paints them as the responsible cost-cutter versus Democrat big spenders.

It is time for Rep. Boehner and the House to get to work.   The present Continuing Resolution expires on April 8th.   Between  now and then, the House can vote to fund the government but only those functions and departments which are deemed essential or allow Democrats to demagogue.   Everything else must rise or fall on its merits and only after severe scrutiny.

The worst thing that could happen is the House democrats take the familiar approach and hide out in Illinois until the adults in Congress finish up the job properly.   That’s tough luck for Illinois, but, then again, Illinois is a far, far cry from the land of Lincoln.   Perhaps they should change the state motto to “Refuge of Scoundrels.”

  • jbrookins

    Interesting idea. This would also open up the budget so all would see exactly what is being voted on. Easier to digest. Humm.

    The current budget process is so full of agencies, departments and programs that it’s easy to hide or duplicate spending.


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This article is filed under the category(s) Leadership and was published March 22nd, 2011 by Glen Tschirgi.

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