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GOP House Budget contenders stress party unity on fiscal issues

House Republicans likely to have the thinnest of margins to adopt a budget blueprint

Texas Republican Rep. Jodey C. Arrington has worked on bipartisan proposals to tie deficit controls to any debt limit increase.
Texas Republican Rep. Jodey C. Arrington has worked on bipartisan proposals to tie deficit controls to any debt limit increase. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans will face their biggest tests of unity in the next Congress on fiscal issues, from adopting a budget resolution that will guide the party’s spending and tax priorities to leveraging deadlines for government funding and lifting the debt ceiling in hopes of implementing some goals.

While a number of races remain uncalled, if current trends hold it appears the GOP will eke out a slim majority, with no more than a few seats above the 218 needed to pass legislation.

Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, currently the top Budget panel Republican, is seeking the Ways and Means gavel. He’s considered a strong contender for the top tax-writing slot, but if he loses, Smith will face some competition to keep his current role.

GOP Reps. Jodey C. Arrington of Texas and Earl L. “Buddy” Carter of Georgia are running for Budget chair regardless, while Lloyd K. Smucker of Pennsylvania is only running if Smith is not. In recent interviews, the trio described similar ambitions:

— Writing a budget resolution that can win not only the support of Budget Republicans but enough of the GOP conference to get 218 votes on the floor.
— Using a “must-pass” bill raising or suspending the debt ceiling to extract spending cuts, or budget process overhauls that could lead to the same outcome.
— Conducting spending oversight and implementing budget accountability measures that will restore some fiscal discipline.

The candidates’ differences come more from their personal and professional backgrounds and specific emphases.

Carter touts his career running a pharmacy chain. He said he borrowed $100,000 to start the business in 1988, and by 1994 had paid off that debt as well as his mortgage.

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, R-Ga., attends a news conference with members of the GOP Doctors Caucus after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“I had people who depended on me and I had to make sure that we had the revenue coming in and the expenditures under control,” Carter said. The government needs to learn to do the same instead of “mugging the taxpayer.”

Smucker points to his 25 years in business as founder and owner of a construction firm. “I’ve done a lot of negotiation, a lot of working with people and building consensus in a variety of different settings,” he said. “And so I think I can be very helpful to leadership and to the conference in putting together the budget.”

Arrington was a member of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Reform, a bipartisan, bicameral panel formed as part of a 2018 budget deal. While that group was unsuccessful in getting Congress to enact the proposed budget changes, he said it proved there’s bipartisan consensus the current process is broken and “substantive and meaningful ideas” for fixing it.

In that vein, Arrington and Scott Peters, D-Calif., founded the bipartisan “30 for 30” caucus — 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans — which is working on proposals to slow the rising debt.

Consensus budgeting

The Budget Committee’s primary responsibility is to write a budget resolution laying out a multiyear fiscal vision and setting limits on spending and tax legislation, enforceable by points of order raised on the floor.

The budget blueprint, which does not become law, can also contain reconciliation instructions, allowing for a filibuster-proof process to pass related legislation. Before the elections, the Budget panel candidates each expressed interest in using reconciliation to turn their party’s tax and spending plans into legislative reality. But since Democrats will keep control of the Senate, there is no real chance that the two parties would agree on a budget resolution or on how to use reconciliation to make changes in spending, taxes or the debt limit.

Committee leaders from both parties have struggled to unite their caucuses around a common set of fiscal goals and balance competing interests trying to get 218 votes to adopt a budget on the floor. Republicans who flipped Democratic seats in districts that could easily swing back in two years probably won’t want to go as far in cutting spending as fiscal conservatives in safe red districts.

“It’s gonna take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of listening to people, understanding where people want to go and then find consensus,” Smucker said. “That’s where I can really serve the conference well.”

Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., attends the Ways and Means Committee markup of budget reconciliation legislation on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Arrington said his approach would be “empowering members” rather than “thrusting your ideas on them.” He said he has credibility among fellow fiscal hawks and believes he can convince them not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“You can get hung up on trying to do too much at one time,” he said. “You have to be able to convince people that we didn’t get here overnight, won’t get out of here overnight. . . . We gotta walk, then run.”

Carter said he’s talked to the conference’s two conservative factions, the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus, about not putting out alternative budget resolutions and working within the Budget Committee to produce one unified document.

“Both of those groups are committed to working toward that common goal of getting that done,” Carter said. “And the speaker-to-be, Kevin McCarthy, has made it clear he wants one budget. He doesn’t want three different budgets out there.”

Debt ceiling

An even tougher test for Republicans will come in the latter half of next year as they need to negotiate with Democrats to raise the debt limit — assuming Democrats haven’t preemptively taken care of that in the coming lame-duck session.

The Budget candidates all oppose proposals to eliminate the debt ceiling or otherwise take away the vote from lawmakers because it’s one of the few mechanisms that force discussions on the drivers of debt and deficits. The three agree Republicans should use the debt limit to enact legislation tackling those drivers, through spending cuts, process changes or both.

Carter and Smucker declined to detail specific demands ahead of formal GOP strategizing on the topic, but Arrington offered a few ideas.

One is a bipartisan bill he introduced with Peters to make it easier to suspend the debt limit if Congress adopted a budget resolution that envisioned reducing the debt as a share of the economy, or if the president proposed legislation to reduce the debt.

Arrington also floated other options like creating a bipartisan debt commission or reimposing discretionary caps. Both have been tried in the past to little effect, but “sometimes it’s just timing,” he said.

Spending cuts and controls

All three candidates say nondefense spending must be curbed, debt growth slowed and entitlement programs refashioned to prevent the Social Security and Medicare trust funds from being depleted. Although they would not reveal specific changes they favor, they did not rule out raising the retirement age as an option.

Whether to reimpose statutory discretionary spending caps sparked differences.

Arrington supports new caps and introduced a bill to limit spending growth to 2 percent a year for the next decade, which he said would save “about a half a trillion” dollars. His legislation would leave it up to Congress to decide the split between defense and nondefense, unlike the previous caps, which set separate limits.

Smucker, while not necessarily opposed to new caps, prefers to control spending through sticking with the limits in a budget resolution and complying with budget enforcement rules.

One of Smucker’s ideas is to make it harder for the House to ignore rules that limit spending and deficit growth but are routinely waived in rules governing consideration of legislation. He suggests requiring a two-thirds vote in the Rules Committee to waive enforcement, meaning it would need votes from the minority, or requiring the full House to vote on any proposed waivers.

Oversight and process changes

The candidates are also interested in conducting oversight of spending programs and eyeing improvements to the budget process.

Carter said he would summon the IRS in his first oversight hearing to ask why the agency needs the estimated 87,000 new employees funded in the Democrats’ climate, tax and health law.

Smucker said he would hold a hearing to explore the causes of inflation and how to bring down prices. He also wants to look into “massive fraud” in the federal unemployment system.

Arrington and others have proposed budget process overhauls, like setting up bipartisan, bicameral committees to prevent insolvency of various trust funds.

Carter has introduced bills to penalize the president for being late in submitting his annual budget because “once you miss that deadline then it throws everything else off.” One bill would withhold the salaries of appointed officials and the other would cut off funds for presidential travel until the spending plan is unveiled.

But Carter is also interested in adjusting some deadlines written in the 1974 law to make them easier to meet.

Smucker wants to take a comprehensive look at the 1974 law to add more accountability measures and replace budget processes that aren’t working.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask to look at this like every half-century,” he said.

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