Frustrated GOP Freshmen Target Gimmicks That Make it Hard to Cut the Budget

Published Feb 7, 2012. By Lori Montgomery.

Before winning a spot in the House Republican freshman class, Rep. Tim Griffin was a high-ranking GOP political operative and a top aide to strategist Karl Rove. But despite his extensive Washington experience, Griffin said he was blindsided last year by budget “gimmicks” that blocked a clear victory for his top priority: cutting federal spending.

This year, congressional Republicans expect few opportunities to stage another spending showdown. So Griffin (Ark.) and other frustrated GOP freshmen are focusing on a new goal: rewriting congressional budget rules to prevent spending from rising in the first place.

The freshmen want to end a host of arcane budget gimmicks involving “chimps” (changes in mandatory spending), budgetary timing shifts and spending cancellations known as “rescissions.” But their most passionate rhetoric is focused on a more mundane target: the troubling effect of inflation on the nation’s budget.

By law, congressional budget analysts are required to produce baseline projections on how agency spending rises with inflation and population growth. The theory is that providing the same level of services costs more each year.

But that means spending is assumed to always be going up. It also means that slowing a program’s rate of growth is invariably condemned as a “cut,” Griffin and other freshmen complained, even if the program in question is getting more money than it did in the past.

“I compare Washington cuts to an Arkansas normal person cut,” Griffin said. “A normal person cut is when you get less money this year than you got last year. In Washington, you can get more money this year than you did last year, but if it’s not as much as you thought you were going to get, then that’s a cut.”

Ending adjustments for inflation in agency budget projections is unlikely to have much immediate impact. Budget caps were adopted during last year’s fight over the federal debt limit, and agency spending is actually projected to fall over the next decade, from $1.34 trillion in 2011 to $1.2 trillion in 2015. Agency spending would not return to last year’s levels until 2021. Spending on giant federal health and retirement programs, however, would keep rising, as would interest payments on the growing national debt.

Democrats argue that the Republican approach is nonetheless ill-advised. It “tries to kind of wish away inflation,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, creating “a very misleading picture of what we can purchase in terms of goods and services with our dollars” that “gets more misleading over time.”

House Republicans voted unanimously to support the inflation-busting Baseline Reform Act on Friday and sent it on to the Democrat-controlled Senate. This week, House leaders plan to hold votes on a raft of additional rule-changing measures, few of which have much chance of survival. One measure, which would create a process for the White House to nix specific spending proposals with congressional approval, does have the backing of the White House. But many congressional Democrats oppose the modified line-item veto plan, and aides say it is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Still, budget analysts said the bills allow Republicans to keep talking about cutting spending in the run-up to the 2012 elections, even if they aren’t able to do much about it.

“The harder the substantive choices, the more people start talking about process reform,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition. “I think there’s a hope that if we streamline the process, toughen the process, it will help us make these hard choices. But it’s certainly not a cure for the deficit. And it’s not going to help us save a lot of money.”

Concord and other bipartisan budget groups have praised some of the Republican reform proposals, particularly a package known as the Honest Budget Act that was drafted by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and sponsored in the House by 27 GOP freshmen. That measure would make it harder to approve spending bills unless Congress has approved an overall budget blueprint; it would tighten rules for declaring any spending an “emergency”; and it would bar certain maneuvers that muddied the budget-cutting waters last year.

For example, Congress could no longer take back budget authority from a program that was never going to spend the money anyway and then give the “savings” to another program, boosting its spending. Such rescissions played a starring role last spring, when House freshmen were asked to approve a spending bill to keep the government open only to discover at the last minute that the measure would not significantly reduce current federal spending.

“It’s a talking point to say we’ve changed the conversation in Washington. When we got here, it was ‘How much more are we going to spend?’ Now it’s ‘How much more are we going to save?’” said Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who organized House support for the Honest Budget Act. “So we have most definitely changed the conversation. But this bill deals with institutional budget gimmicks long used by both parties, she said. “This is our attempt to act on that.”

Clearing up exactly what constitutes a budget cut goes to the heart of that effort. In an interview last week in Roby’s office, Roby, Griffin and two other GOP freshmen — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Tom Reed of New York — said the Internet has changed the relationship between Washington lawmakers and their constituents, who now have immediate access to the most intricate budget details.

Reed said it’s critical to show voters that he is doing all he can to eliminate waste in routine programs. Otherwise, he said, it will be much harder to persuade them to accept dramatic reductions in popular entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, the biggest drivers of future spending growth.

“If we don’t have the backing of the American people,” Reed said, “we’re not going to be able to face the problems that are coming down the fiscal pipeline.”