The deal between White House and Congressional negotiators to increase federal spending and raise the debt limit does not represent the death of small-government conservatism or the Tea Party.
Instead, we are witnessing the death of a budget gimmick that never worked as advertised and may have, perversely, led to even more spending.
The budget deal has provoked howls of outrage from many on the right. National Review and the Washington Examiner have accused the deal of being the murder weapon in the death of the Tea Party’s legacy. Congressmen Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have said they will vote against the deal. FreedomWorks called it a “disgrace” The Heritage Foundation warned the deal could “kill” the “economic success” of the Trump era.
The agreement abandons the Trump administration’s own budget, which included steep spending cuts across the federal government. But that budget was never seen as a blueprint for actual legislation, in part because no one had done the hard work of convincing the American people that the programs that would be cut should be cut.
Probably more importantly, the agreement is the lastest political abandonment of what National Review referred to as “the crown jewel of the 2011 ‘tea-party Congress.’” Ever since the Tea Party’s 2010 electoral victory, Republicans have sought to contain government spending by capping the overall level of spending rather than targeting individual programs. During the Obama administration, Republicans used the debt ceiling to negotiate agreements to set a ceiling on spending–which has routinely been lifted by later budget agreements.
The latest budget agreement allows for $320 billion in spending over two years above limits set in the 2011 budget law. Without a deal, automatic budget cuts would kick in, slashing discretionary spending across the board. (The actual spending increase authorized by the deal, however, is just $50 billion above current levels, raising overall spending from $1.32 trillion to $1.37 trillion.)
The hope among the Republican leaders and conservative thinkers who helped craft the 2011 cap-or-cut mechanism was that the threat of automatic spending cuts would force Democrats and Republican spenders to choose between spending programs, keeping the overall level below the cap. Or, failing that, the law would allow Republicans to escape the political consequences of advocating for cutting specific programs because the cuts were just coming automatically.
That has not worked out because Democrats have successfully pointed out, time and again, that the automatic spending cuts would hurt vulnerable–and politically important–constituencies. Automatic spending cuts would hurt farmers, conservationist fishermen, pre-natal care programs, and so on into the great infinity.
In other words, Republicans hoped that caps and automatic spending cuts would do the job of containing spending. They have not. Instead, spending has continued to climb and conservatives have largely left off talk about shrinking government. The thunder on the right this week is the result of a political upheaval created by the failure of a legislative budget gimmick to shrink the federal budget.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. The way to shrink government spending is to shrink the government. To do so, Republicans will build a coalition of American voters who agree to cut the actual programs that result in the spending. Instead of targeting the absolute level of spending, Republicans would target the federal programs.
That is a fraught endeavor. Federal programs exist because they serve well-organized constituents. Shrinking them requires alienated their clients and involves political risks. It is not something that can be done easily or quickly. There’s a good reason government tends to grow rather than shrink–that’s the path of least resistance.
The good news for conservatives is that this has always been the goal. The real problem is not that the government spends too much–it is that we have too much government. And what the history of the last decade has taught us is that we need to address this directly and not through budget gimmicks.
The John Boehner-Paul Ryan program of mechanically containing spending has failed. The new budget deal is indeed the final nail in that’s scheme’s coffin. Now Republicans need to build a coalition to organically, methodically reduce the footprint of the federal programs that require so much spending in the first place.
In the meantime, Republicans can find some comfort that the Trump administration has not fallen for the old trap that snared George Herbert Walker Bush. The first President Bush raised taxes in a budget deal to contain the deficit, betraying his most famous campaign promise and guaranteeing the end of his presidency. The Trump administration has chosen to let the deficit grow because spending is rising, but it held the line against tax hikes.