Ultimatums from the House Freedom Caucus won't stop the spending binge

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Presently, members of the House Freedom Caucus and a few of its allies are in a cage match with the rest of Congress and the White House over excessive federal spending. Last month, they led an unsuccessful charge against the continuing resolution that was enacted to keep the government open through early March.

To be sure, they were not alone. A total of 106 Republicans voted against the bill, although many did so because they knew the bill would pass — which freed them to please their base voters by saying, “Nay.”

But this was a House Freedom Caucus fight through and through. 

As the Senate hurried the legislation along, the caucus stunned many Hill-watchers by demanding to attach a border control bill — H.R. 2 — to it. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) balked at that prospect and brought the legislation to the floor under suspension of the rules, thereby avoiding the House Freedom Caucus critics who sit on the Rules Committee. Thereafter, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) floated the possibility that he might take vengeance by trying to topple Speaker Johnson, which sent Capitol Hill into a tizzy.

The House Freedom Caucus’s stand elicited a great deal of criticism. Some of us gently pointed out that it was folly to try to attach a border security bill to a continuing resolution. By definition, a continuing resolution continues existing law and spending — it is not a vehicle for enacting big new policies. 

We also observed that killing the continuing resolution would lead to a government shutdown with no obvious end. Drawing a line in the sand against the legislation’s $1.66 trillion in discretionary spending would leave no clear path to a legislative bargain. Neither President Joe Biden nor the Democratic Senate would accede to a lower number. 

So the shutdown would go on and on and military personnel, government contractors and various other voters would go without pay. The average member of the GOP, unlike the average Freedom Caucus member, does not believe their voters will reward them for keeping the government shuttered for weeks or months.

And don’t get me started about the myopia of vacating Speaker Johnson. Booting him from his perch would wreck any chance for the House GOP to vote on the individual spending bills (which they say they want to do), and would reinforce the impression in voters’ minds that the GOP can’t govern.

But what about the Freedom Caucus’s complaint that the $1.66 trillion in discretionary spending is too much? Admittedly, it is slightly higher than the $1.6 trillion limit set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act in June. The House Freedom Caucus, it is worth noting, roasted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for agreeing to this spending level.

At first blush, going from $1.6 trillion to $1.66 trillion in discretionary spending looks like an outrageous increase. The year before COVID struck in 2020, discretionary spending was $1.38 trillion. Why are we agreeing to spend $300 billion more?

The answer: Inflation. Yes, the price rises presided over by President Joe Biden means that $1.66 trillion for 2024 has the same spending power as the $1.38 trillion spent in 2019. That said, it is entirely possible that Congress could bust the $1.66 trillion cap by passing supplemental appropriations. This would not be the first time that has happened.

For sure, federal spending has skyrocketed and should be reduced. Raising taxes, by the way, will not balance the budget. The deal cut by Speaker McCarthy and seconded by Speaker Johnson is not awful. It is about as good as they could have gotten seeing as Democrats control the Senate and the White House and the GOP’s margin in the House is razor-thin.

Politics is the art of the possible, and the House Freedom Caucus likely can best advance the goal of fiscal responsibility by focusing its candidate recruitment efforts on increasing the numbers of budget hawks on Capitol Hill and winning the White House.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020). He hosts the Understanding Congress podcast. 

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