Flipping coins in McCarthy’s Congress: GOP’s math problems grow in effort to balance budget with slim majority
Republicans could have turned to the National Football League for help had they failed to elect House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after the 15th ballot in the wee hours of Saturday morning,
Following the cancelation of the Buffalo Bills/Cincinnati Bengals game last week, the NFL designed a coin flip scenario to determine the home field for the first round of the playoffs. The framework impacted Buffalo, Cincinnati, the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
But after five paralyzing days, Republicans finally — narrowly — elected McCarthy.
It is said that what is past is prologue. The speaker’s election is past, but it serves as prologue for what Congress is in for over the next two years as Republicans try to navigate their 222-212 majority.
Lose five votes on any given bill and Republicans are toast. Republicans need all of their members present on the floor to vote. The multiple votes for House speaker showcased a united Democratic coalition, getting all 212 members to the floor on almost every single vote. They only faltered when Rep. David Trone, D-Md., was out Friday morning for surgery. Trone resurfaced at the Capitol later in the day wielding a cane.
Even though Republicans couldn’t get their act together, rank-and-file GOPers lashed out at Democrats for sticking together.
‘[House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.] celebrated the unanimity of the Democrats. President Xi likes unanimity in China as well,’ said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., on NBC.
But in the long run, Republicans may be envious of the Democrats’ solidarity. Republicans could pine for some ‘Xi-esque’ discipline to pass their ambitious legislative agenda.
Indeed, the 118th Congress will be all about the math, perhaps in more ways than one.
Let’s examine what Republicans intend to do legislatively:
Part of the handshake pact with McCarthy opponents was to ‘balance the budget.’ Republicans promise to introduce a balanced budget plan which will balance the budget over ten years.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., had his own ‘balanced budget’ plan when he chaired the Budget Committee after the GOP seized the majority in 2010.
Republicans led the House for eight consecutive years. The House adopted Ryan’s vaunted budget proposals. But they certainly never harnessed spending.
Here’s why: Congressional ‘budgets’ are aspirational documents. They lay out a proposal for each dollar the government intends to spend in a fiscal year. But budgets are not binding. They don’t actually account for the money which the government may wind up spending. Congress, a presidential administration nor anyone else is compelled to align with these ‘budgets’ which the House and Senate may adopt. That’s why the national debt and the federal government’s fiscal situation never improved during the GOP’s previous reign in the House — to say nothing of when Democrats had control.
Voting to balance the budget is a vote fiscal conservatives would relish taking. But casting such ballots does little to impact the bottom line if they don’t actually cut spending.
Here’s where Republicans have an opportunity to slash spending. And it’s not pretty.
The federal government spent $6.272 trillion in fiscal year 2022. It took in $4.896 trillion. You see the problem.
Seventy percent of all government funding goes toward entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That spending is considered to be ‘mandatory.’ In other words, the Treasury Department must spend it — unless Congress steps in to adjust the law to slash entitlements. Historically, proposals to cut entitlements are extraordinarily unpopular with voters.
So, let’s now drift over to the ‘other’ 30% that the government spends each year. That’s ‘discretionary’ spending. Congress has ‘discretion’ over spending those dollars. The ‘30%’ pie is comprised of the 12 annual spending bills, which run the federal government. The largest appropriations bill is defense. Congress awards a little more than half of all discretionary spending to the Pentagon.
Zoom out for a moment. Seventy percent of all federal dollars go toward entitlements. Slightly more than half of all federal dollars appropriated by Congress (in the ‘30% pie’) go toward the military. So, that accounts for about 85 percent of all federal dollars.
This begs the question, how will House Republicans ‘balance’ the budget? Keep in mind they have to advance such plans through the Democratically-controlled Senate and get their deal past President Biden.
There’s not enough money inside the remaining ‘15%’ of Congressionally appropriated dollars to balance the budget. The only pathway to balance the budget would involve deep entitlement and defense cuts.
This is why the U.S. could be cruising toward a collision with the federal debt ceiling later this spring and a prospective government shutdown Oct. 1.
During an appearance on Fox, Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., suggested that Republicans should use the prospect of a government shutdown as ‘leverage.’
But all of that presumes that Republicans can keep their narrow majority together throughout the entire Congress.
Also, the number of total members in the House changes constantly. There are a number of special elections each Congress. Some of those seats flip. But the seats often must sit open for months on end until governors call for special elections in those states. Remember, the Constitution prohibits anyone from being appointed to the House. The first special election of this Congress comes in Virginia’s 4th District in mid-February. It’s a district Democrats are expected to win and narrow the GOP’s majority.
If Republicans attempt to slash entitlement spending, there is going to be a battle royale inside the House GOP majority. It may even be a bigger rumble if conservative budget hawks try to cut defense spending.
‘Most of us won’t vote for cuts to defense,’ said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., an ardent advocate of the Pentagon. ‘There’s enough Republicans that aren’t going to cut defense spending right now.’
‘Even the military shouldn’t get a blank check,’ said Good. ‘We can’t be spending money based on loyalty to the military industrial complex or to lobbyists or to special interests or based on whose district is getting those funding projects.’
Ironically, dovish Democrats could team with GOP budget hawks and vote to cut spending. It’s those coalitions which could make things rather interesting in the 118th Congress. But it also demonstrates how GOPers could work with Democrats — even if it simultaneously underscores the fragility of their majority.
Also, House GOPers have assured their members they will take votes on a Constitutional balanced budget amendment and term limits legislation.
Republicans argued they wouldn’t do ‘messaging’ bills. However, one could argue that both of those measures are ‘messaging’ bills. That legislation is intended to deliver a ‘message’ to their base, yet may stand little chance of becoming law.
A balanced budget amendment alters the Constitution. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of both bodies of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of all states. It’s doubtful a balanced budget amendment will ever get 289 votes in the 434 member House. In fact, it may not even get a simple majority.
Republicans are also talking about passing a term limits package. That could pose Constitutional problems. The plan would alter the qualifications spelled out in Article I of the Constitution for someone to serve in Congress. It’s doubtful the Supreme Court would find such a measure Constitutional.
On Monday night, the House finally adopted its rules package to run operations for the next two years. It did so with one Republican absent and one GOPer opposed. Switch three votes and the measure would have failed. Republicans were unsure they had to the votes to okay the package over the weekend.
In order to prevail in the Speaker’s race, McCarthy employed what one Congressional source termed as the Steppenwolf strategy.
‘Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space,’ goes the lyric in Steppenwolf’s legendary anthem ‘Born To Be Wild.’
McCarthy promised everything. But some of these promises may be unrealistic. In order to meet their budgetary goals Republicans may need to cut close to $7 trillion in entitlement spending. $3 trillion from Social Security alone. The electoral consequences of that could be catastrophic for Republicans — especially among moderate GOPers elected from New York.
The math may not work.
This is where McCarthy may have promised too much. The promises might not meet the reality. That means that vote after vote over the next two years will likely teeter on a parliamentary cliff. Republicans will stick together on some measures and other votes will wobble on a razor’s edge — just like the speaker’s vote.
That’s where they could hope for some of that Xi-esque discipline which Bishop denounced on NBC.
Perhaps Republicans would fare better deciding every big issue with a coin flip.