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The Wrong Budget Fight at the Wrong Time

Friday, March 18, 2011

The best strategy is to quickly end the squabbling over the budget that should have been passed for fiscal 2011 and then have House Republicans introduce a 2012 budget that lays out their vision.

For the foreseeable future, economic policy in Washington will be one big budget fight. And on that fight, we’re about as conservative as they come: we recently argued that history shows that the only way to balance the budget and close the looming entitlement gap will be almost 100 percent through spending cuts.

But even then, we think that conservative Republicans in the House may be picking the wrong fight at the wrong time.

For a while now, many have predicted that the force of the Tea Party faction within the Republican Party could cause it to fracture. The stress on party cohesion began to show on Tuesday, when 54 House Republicans bucked the leadership and voted against a continuing resolution to fund government spending through April 8. The resolution would not have passed without the support of House Democrats.

Some Republicans voting against the resolution cited the short-term nature of the legislation. Others rejected the measure, despite a $6 billion spending cut, because it did not include provisions to remove funding from some left-wing priorities such as Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as “ObamaCare.” Additionally, many voiced a desire to see larger cuts in government spending.

This is undoubtedly a serious test of leadership for House Speaker John Boehner, but his approach is the right one and Republicans should give him a chance to succeed.

"If we really believe we are against ObamaCare, this is the vote," said Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) earlier this week. "If a member votes for the continuing resolution, that vote effectively says, I am choosing not to fight."

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) said that there will probably not be another short-term funding resolution. Instead, the aim is to reach an agreement to fund the government through September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

However, Tea Party-aligned Republicans have signaled they are prepared to force a government shutdown and will not vote in favor of future budget resolutions unless they eliminate unwanted funding. Representative Mike Pence (R-Indiana) quipped, "Things don't change in Washington until they have to. It will not be possible to put our fiscal house in order without a fight."

This is undoubtedly a serious test of leadership for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), but his approach is the right one and Republicans should give him a chance to succeed.

Tea Party-aligned Republicans have signaled they are prepared to force a government shutdown and will not vote in favor of future budget resolutions unless they eliminate unwanted funding.

The problem with the current fight, something Boehner clearly recognizes, is that it is on Democrats’ own turf. Because last year’s Congress was unable to pass a budget, Republicans must complete the task, extending the policies that they inherited through the end of the fiscal year. Battles will inevitably be cat-fights over minor modifications to Democrats’ favored policies.

By far the better strategy is to quickly end the squabbling over the budget that should have been passed for fiscal year 2011 and then have House Republicans introduce a 2012 budget that lays out their vision. Boehner has charged Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) with crafting this budget and, given Ryan’s history as an imaginative and aggressively conservative legislator, it seems certain that his budget will contain conservative policies that are worth taking to the barricades to defend.

If Republicans shut the government down while wrangling over minor details of an outdated Democratic budget, they will inevitably look petty. If they choose, instead, to fight over their own budget, then at least the stakes will match the level of drama. Republicans should unite behind Boehner and let him lead.

Andrew Biggs is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Kevin Hassett is a senior fellow and director of economic policy studies.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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