GOP Spurns Entitlement Overhaul With Control Of Congress on the Line
By Sarah Ferris Politico April 17, 2018
Republicans in Congress approaching midterm elections have abandoned hope of tackling the entitlement programs that are the main drivers of the nation's mounting debt, even as they stare down one of the most dour economic forecasts in decades.
Last week, House and Senate lawmakers were lectured by CBO Director Keith Hall, who warned that trillion-dollar deficits would soon be the new normal in the U.S.
But even as conservatives cringed at the endless red ink, many said they see no real chance of Medicaid or Medicare reform this year — or possibly at all while Donald Trump is president.
Republicans do have a tool that would allow them to reel back some of the mandatory programs that are ballooning the deficit.
But many doubt that party leaders would commit to overhauling entitlements in an election year that threatens to erase their control of Congress.
Even if such an overhaul cleared both chambers, the GOP's plan could face a wall in the White House: Trump himself, who made a campaign pledge not to cut into Medicare or Social Security benefits, though his fiscal 2019 budget slashed Medicare and Medicaid spending through various reforms. The White House said those cuts would not harm beneficiaries.
Members said they are skeptical much will happen on entitlements. "To be honest with you, I don't know. I would love to see that. But the realities in an election year are what they are," said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), a member of the House Budget Committee.
"The message to the American people needs to be that we're serious about the debt crisis. We used to call it a looming debt crisis. It's no longer looming. It's here," Johnson said.
With Republicans ruling out reconciliation for a second year, House Speaker Paul Ryan is forfeiting his final chance at enacting the iconic entitlement proposals he has written for nearly a decade.
His proposals to privatize Medicare — which spurred Democratic attack ads that literally showed an elderly woman being thrown off a cliff — were never achievable with former President Barack Obama in the White House.
Ryan is retiring with Republicans dominating control of the government, though he's not using his final year in office to achieve his years-old dreams of paring back mandatory spending.
"More work needs to be done. And it really is entitlements," Ryan told reporters as he announced his retirement last week.
Ryan and other GOP leaders have already shown they can use the special budget tool, known as reconciliation, to overpower the Senate's filibuster power. The same budget tactic was used to usher in billions in tax breaks under the GOP's tax law, H.R. 1 (115).
But even Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he is unsure if the budget blueprint needed to unlock reconciliation will make it to the floor of the House this year.
He says that while Republicans did unite to support the budget resolution last year, the end goal was the once-in-a-generation tax reform package.
"We got a budget resolution with instructions out on it [last year] primarily because of tax. Let's not kid ourselves," Womack said.
The Arkansas Republican said his goal is to pass the fiscal 2019 budget out of his committee, and then worry about the House floor. "It's important to get it out of my committee, and then, I trust leadership," Womack told POLITICO.
The House's budget panel has already blown past Sunday's statutory deadline for passing a budget resolution, though most other congressional budgets have been late in recent years. Womack said he doesn't yet know when the blueprint will be rolled out.
Like Womack, other skeptical Budget panel members hinted that this year's House GOP budget — which will need to slash deep into safety net programs in order to achieve balance over a decade — may never be released.
"What effect on our ability to deal with this looming crisis is our failure to even produce a budget this year?" Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) asked Hall pointedly in last week's hearing. "We don't even have a plan at this point, and certainly have shown no inclination."
Last year's budget blueprint would have used reconciliation to slash at least $200 billion over a decade. That would come from mandatory programs like Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies or welfare programs. But the Senate ultimately rejected those cuts, leaving a deep sense of frustration on the House side.
Hard-liner Rep. Dave Brat, (R-Va.), who also sits on the Budget panel, said the chances of the House budget reaching the floor are "totally up in the air." And in a notable shift from last year, Brat said he doesn't want to spend the effort getting the blueprint to the floor if it's going nowhere in the Senate.
"On this budget, I don't want to go through heroic measures, knowing full well the Senate is going to go like this" — he makes a thumbs-down sign — "anyways," Brat told POLITICO.
House conservatives, particularly those on the Budget panel, have crusaded against the rapid growth of safety net spending for years, describing it as the "elephant in the room" in any spending or budget debate.
That argument was on full display last week as CBO officials delivered the agency's sobering long-term economic forecast to Congress.
The report found that federal debt is now expected to reach nearly 100 percent of GDP within a decade. And in just five years, the U.S. will be spending more on interest alone than its entire national defense — a grim fiscal portrait that worsens over the next decade.
"This is something we've actually been saying for a long time," Hall, a conservative economist, told lawmakers. "It's been coming for a long time."
One by one, Republican lawmakers used the hearings to sound the alarm and call for reforms.
"If I wasn't unquestionably positive about life in general, I may have a darker view," Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) said.
"God help our children and grandchildren," Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) added, pointing out that mandatory spending — including Medicare and Social Security — is expected to jump 80 percent within 10 years.
Republican leaders in both chambers are shying away from a budget resolution at an awkward time for the party.
GOP lawmakers voted this year on an omnibus bill, H.R. 1625 (115), that dramatically expands government spending into the near future, which Trump later called wasteful.
Then last week, the vast majority of House Republicans supported a symbolic measure that would have added a so-called balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though it said nothing about how lawmakers would roll back those recent spending increases.
At the same time, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is leading the charge on Capitol Hill for a package of domestic spending cuts that would come solely from the discretionary side. Fellow Republicans, like Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), have questioned the proposal because it ignores the far larger portion of the federal budget eaten up by mandatory programs.
"All we're talking about is 15 cents on the dollar. No one can balance their budget only looking at 15 cents on the dollar. It's impossible," Culberson told POLITICO. "We have to deal with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. It has to be done and
I'm hammering our leadership every chance I get."