‘Pledge’ Targets Debt — Without Details

Published Sep 27, 2010. By Paul M. Krawzak and Emily Ethridge.

With fanfare reminiscent of 1994’s “Contract With America” that preceded the party’s takeover of Congress that year, House Republicans last week unveiled a “Pledge to America” that aims at attracting voters concerned about mounting federal debt and spending as well as the health care overhaul. Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, called the pledge “a governing agenda that could be enacted tomorrow.”

But the GOP ambition for now is outrunning reality. In addition to the political hurdles — Republicans must register a net gain of 39 seats to win back the House after four years in the minority — the agenda faces practical problems as well. While vowing, for example, to reduce much of the federal budget to 2008 levels if voters hand them control in the November elections, GOP leaders offered scant details about how they would achieve that. Cutting even a minimal amount of overall federal spending has proved difficult for both parties over the years, as interest groups and lawmakers scrambled to shield their priorities.

Moreover, even if one or both chambers switch hands, as in 1995, a Democrat will be in the White House, veto pen at the ready.

Reining in Spending

The Republican agenda, unveiled Sept. 23 at a hardware store in Sterling, Va., touches on issues as diverse as abortion and terrorism, but the overarching theme is reining in government spending and getting a handle on runaway deficits. Republicans have been hammering congressional Democrats and the White House all year on those issues as Americans express growing anxiety about federal spending amid a persistently weak economy.

“House Republicans are ready to serve as a check and balance on President Obama and make sure that we focus on what’s most important to the people we represent,” said Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

But experts outside government question whether even the majority of House Republicans would have the stomach to roll the budget back to 2008 levels — excluding spending on defense, veterans and seniors — which the GOP says would save $100 billion in the first year and $1 trillion over 10 years.

“It’s possible even Republicans will have a hard time passing that,” since they are likely to then get hit with political ads slamming them for cutting programs, said John C. Fortier, research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I can imagine them running on this, but not getting to it.”

The House GOP proposal would cut discretionary spending — excluding war and undefined emergency funding — to $1.029 trillion in fiscal 2011 and cap increases each year through 2020. Obama has proposed $1.128 trillion in comparable spending.

Alison Fraser, director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sees the $100 billion spending cut as key to laying the groundwork for getting spending under control. “In my view, spending is the problem. That’s what’s driving deficits,” she said.

The idea also finds favor with Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog. “I don’t have any problem with the idea of trying to get the level of discretionary spending back to 2008,” he said. “In theory, it’s the right thing to do.”

But it is always tough to cut spending in Congress, he said, and the 2008 level of spending would buy less in goods and services now.

On the other side, Michael Ettlinger, vice president for economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, believes such a cut would harm programs at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. “Things people rely on on a regular basis would just be decimated,” he said.

Short on Specifics

The plan offers little detail about what specific items would be cut, leading to criticism that it makes tough decisions appear simple.

“They manage to put out a 45-page manifesto and duck exposing what they’re really proposing,” Ettlinger said. “There’s no specificity on spending cuts. It’s kind of gutless and gives the false impression you can cut spending easily.” Bixby faults the plan for providing few specifics on controlling growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Fraser said that although the plan does not spell out specifics for dealing with Social Security, it takes a step in the right direction by asking for fuller, more transparent accounting of the unfunded liabilities. The plan also opposes adding to those liabilities.

Bixby said the proposed spending cuts are not enough to make up for revenues lost by extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which the GOP proposes to make permanent. “They go way in the wrong direction by extending all of the tax cuts,” he said. (Tax cuts, p. 2228)

Ettlinger contends that the plan would add trillions to the 10-year projected deficit by extending tax cuts and not cutting spending enough to make up for what he said would be a loss in revenue.

Experts expressed little concern that the agenda will affect recommendations due to be delivered in December by a bipartisan deficit reduction commission appointed by Obama, since the GOP plan is aimed more at short-term spending than long-term.

Taking Aim at Health Overhaul

The GOP agenda would keep popular consumer protections under the new health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) but repeal the rest of it. Republicans’ proposed replacement largely mirrors a substitute amendment to the overhaul offered by Boehner in November 2009. The Congressional Budget Office scored that measure as less expensive than the overhaul, but said it would do almost nothing to reduce the ranks of the uninsured.

Democrats and consumer health groups blasted the plan, saying it would add to the deficit, roll back consumer protection and end benefits such as drug rebate checks for seniors.

Mirroring Boehner’s proposal, the pledge calls for allowing consumers to buy insurance in states where they do not live, providing incentives for states to reduce costs and the number of uninsured, and expanding state high-risk pool programs for people with pre-existing conditions. It would also revise medical liability insurance, a top concern of physicians that got little attention in the overhaul.

Other popular provisions that would remain are the elimination of lifetime and annual spending limits and stopping insurers from dropping coverage for people who get sick. Those provisions, while well-liked, are also among the most expensive, and the GOP plan does not detail how to pay for them.

Republicans do not say how, or if, they would make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, among the biggest drivers of the federal deficit.

Republicans would make permanent the Hyde amendment, language that is added annually to appropriations bills to prohibit federal funding for abortions, or for health care benefits covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman’s life.

The overhaul already bars federal funding of abortions, and Obama issued an executive order reiterating that no federal funds would be used to pay for elective abortions. But Republicans called those measures “inadequate.”

The pledge’s overwhelming focus on economic issues is meant to show that Republicans are listening and responding to voters’ concerns, said GOP strategist David Winston. “The sense of it is: If we’re going to ask the American people to give us a chance to govern again, we better have a plan to address their overwhelming, No. 1 concern, which is creating jobs and growing the economy,” he said.

In-House Changes

Republicans also vow to reform procedures in the legislative process, pledging to publish all bills before a vote, allow any legislator to offer amendments to reduce spending and end the practice of attaching unpopular bills to “must pass” legislation.