We’ve seen this movie before. Conservatives, eager to bend the curve on federal outlays, are preparing to use the only leverage they have (their votes) while Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer is talking about “House Republican extremists” causing a government shutdown. In most people’s eyes, Republicans have “lost” every shutdown fight since 1995. So why are conservatives back at it again?
Beyond their preference for a smaller government, conservatives are not alone in seeing runaway spending as a dire threat and will admit that their own party shares the blame. Our political system is structurally ill-equipped to turn off spending once it begins. A new estimate that the deficit will double to $2 trillion this year and Fitch Ratings’ recent downgrade of government credit are the most recent reminders that the problem is real. Efforts to rein in the deficit date back at least to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings agreement in 1985 and include proposed Constitutional amendments, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 (PAYGO), the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, a “sustainable growth rate” for Medicare reimbursements, George W. Bush’s plan to make Social Security sustainable, the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission, the 2011 ‘Supercommittee,’ sequestration, the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act of 2011, revenue-producing tax increases, and growth-generating tax cuts.
None of it worked and the government is $32 trillion in debt. Congress rarely makes tough decisions without an action-forcing mechanism and conservatives want to be that mechanism. The House’s two conservative caucuses, the Freedom Caucus and the larger Republican Study Committee have identified similar priorities. Most broadly, they do not want the Covid-era surge in spending to serve as the baseline for future spending. The FY 2023 omnibus, which was called a “monstrosity” by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, passed the House with almost no GOP support in the very last days of the Democrats’ majority. Conservatives want to return to pre-Covid levels or lower. With $115 billion in rescissions, House appropriators have offered budgetary authority at pre-pandemic (FY 2022) levels, but conservatives say this is a gimmick that won’t reduce actual outlays. On this point, the Heritage Foundation says, ‘This represents an unprecedented expansion of rescissions as a budgetary tool to add spending within appropriations caps.’ Many conservatives also see the President’s emergency supplemental request as an end-run around the debt-limit agreement and have a longstanding position that supplementals should be offset.
Though not completely aligned, the RSC and HFC identify seven priorities, some of which are “power of the purse” priorities not directly tied to deficit concerns.
- A return to pre-Covid level spending levels (or lower). The Freedom Caucus specifically says $1.471 trillion, which is equal to the FY2022 top line.
- No “clean” continuing resolution. They do not want a shutdown and are prepared to vote for a funding patch, but they eequate continuation of FY 2023 sending levels with acceptance of Speaker Pelosi’s “monstrosity.”
- No CR to late December that would force the House’s hand before the holidays. Members want to have the spending argument in October (or perhaps next year), when their backs are not up against a wall.
- Action on the southern border, such as enactment of H.R. 2.
- Action to address ideological ‘weaponization’ of federal law enforcement agencies.
- Action to stop ‘woke’ programming at the Department of Defense, including flights for personnel seeking abortion services that are illegal where they live.
- No “blank check” for Ukraine. While some legislators want to cut off aid for Ukraine, for many this is an question of prioritization.
Conservatives know the odds of a significant win in a contest with the Senate and the White House, but they want to try. Reining in the scope and cost of government are key reasons most of them ran for Congress. They also believe many of their moderate colleagues are with them on spending levels and that voters are increasingly with them on the border. “President Biden,” we may be hearing soon, “would rather shut down the government than control the border.”
Gabriel Neville is a senior advisor at Covington & Burling LLP. He was a congressional staffer from 1997 to 2015.