As Congress breaks for its August recess, House Republicans continue to work on an agenda setting forth how they would govern if given the chance. The agenda is by no means set, but it seems well on its way, with town halls across the country set up to see how well these ideas resonate with the public.
Unfortunately, so far the draft agenda lacks a bold, overarching spending proposal that would define “spending restraint” or “fiscal discipline” for House Republicans. Such definition is needed, and any future agenda that lacks one isn’t worth much.
It’s not just that the last tenure of Republican control showed us the perils of a “we’re better than the Democrats” standard. It’s that this is a truly historic election where the public is focused and mobilized on spending and the size of government in a way rarely seen before. Failing to put forward a proposal based on what would actually save the country from going the way of Europe is simply irresponsible.
There are two main proposals that would do the job. A Spending Limit Amendment (SLA), authored by Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence, to limit spending to one-fifth of the economy, the average since World War II. The other, pushed by various members, is the old Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) that was included in the Contract with America in 1994.
I am partial to a Spending Limit Amendment. It focuses away from the symptom of deficits to the problem of spending. It defines fiscal responsibility in a way that Democrats simply cannot endorse because it takes tax increases off the table. It allows for more flexibility to pass pro-growth tax cuts that are vitally needed and have a dynamic impact on the economy, even if “scored” as a total revenue loss under by the bureaucrat budget scorekeepers. It would set a level of spending that will truly save the country. If Republicans pledge to pass and live by an SLA by writing budgets consistent with it, conservative voters can honestly be assured that they have gotten our message.
The Balanced Budget Amendment makes a little less strategic sense to me, in that it invites a debate on tax increases in every year where the economy causes tax revenues to slow. Those are battles that we may or may not win based on the political landscape at the time. It also gives cover to Blue Dog Democrats who can easily sign on to a Balanced Budget Amendment (whether its the version that makes it hard to raise taxes doesn’t really matter for their purposes back home). Many conservative versions of the amendment include a two-thirds hurdle to raise taxes, but perhaps the most conservative Congress ever in 1995 lacked the will to keep that provision in there. I have my doubts whether it can be retained at the end of the day.
However, a Balanced Budget Amendment is much, much better than nothing. Given Republicans general opposition to tax increases, they will largely focus on spending, and given the sheer size of our fiscal problems, it too will demand massive spending reductions. Conservative voters can trust that if Republicans are trying to enact a BBA, and writing budgets consistent with it, they can be trusted.
Some will say that it’s impossible to meet these limits. Really, it’s impossible to balance the budget without raising taxes or to keep spending limited to what it has been for the past few generations? Give me a long weekend. Yes, it requires entitlement reform. It requires Congressmen to be supportive of various proposals that would actually offer better quality while achieving massive savings. Yes, it requires them to get comfortable quick with limiting the growth in Medicare. It requires a conversation about agencies and programs that we simply do not need or which can no longer be afforded. If Congressmen or candidates cannot figure out how to talk about these type of proposals in this favorable environment, they simply do not get it and cannot be trusted to hold an elected office.
Some will say that it does not make political sense to call for these type of reforms before an election that is supposed to be about Democrats. Well, elections are never just about them. Its also about us and how Republicans would solve the problems of the day and not simply make them modestly better. But beyond that, when will it ever make political sense if not now? It won’t, and we will have missed a historic opportunity to educate the public on what is at stake and what is required. And if given the chance to govern, Republicans will then have a mandate to govern and take reforms back to the country as needed to get our fiscal house in order and make the country prosperous again.
But what if Republicans can’t deliver? This is another argument that I’ve heard. Are conservative and independent voters idiots? Of course they’re not. Do they not realize that Obama is in the White House for at least two more years? Of course they do. But they want Republicans to set the terms for a real agenda of fiscal responsibility and be militant about advancing it. And our voters are smart enough to know that if the votes don’t materialize, its time to go after those remaining in Congress who stood in the way.
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to improve the Republican agenda before its too late. Contact your Congressman and find out where and when they’re holding these August town halls. Attend and ask them why they’re not for a Spending Limit Amendment or a Balanced Budget Amendment. Tell them to go big or go home, and let’s see what we can’t get done in the months ahead.