January 5, 2016

January 5, 2016 | Commentary on Obamacare, Budget Process

Congress Needs to Start 2016 on a Diet

It’s that time when we reflect on the past year while making resolutions for big accomplishments in the year ahead. Come next week, the gyms will be packed, and you’ll hardly be able to find any kale at the grocery. However, fewer than one in 10 actually sticks to their New Year’s resolutions.

As it turns out, Congress has a roughly similar success rate when it comes to sticking to resolutions. Exhibit A: federal spending.

Earlier this year, Congress passed its first budget in six years. Like any proper New Year’s resolution, the budget was ambitious and based in good intentions.

Lawmakers know that the country is on a dangerous spending trajectory. The budget resolution provided a credible alternative. It proposed cutting the deficit by $5.3 trillion over the next 10 years, simply by reducing the growth in spending. It also included pro-growth policies that, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, would have added 1.2 million jobs. And it laid the groundwork for repealing Obamacare through the budget reconciliation process.

The resolution sought to accomplish these goals by building on the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending limits and making long-overdue reforms to the nation’s overly complex tax code and fiscally unsustainable entitlement programs.

But Congress abandoned its version of a regular diet and exercise regime almost immediately. As the year comes to a close, the budgetary scales show that, rather than trim spending, lawmakers wound up adding almost $1.2 trillion to the debt this year.

Rather than build on the discretionary spending limits, Congress and the president cut a deal in October that blows through the limits — piling up an additional $85 billion in red ink over the next three years and laying the framework for another financially irresponsible “grand bargain” before 2018.

And rather than reform entitlement programs, lawmakers increased mandatory spending (including debt service payments) by more than $390 billion.

One area where Congress actually may be able to keep a commitment from their resolution is on using the budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare. Before Thanksgiving the Senate passed a bill that would repeal most of the new spending programs — including the premium subsidies and Medicaid expansion — as well as most of the new Obamacare taxes. The bill also would eliminate the penalties for individuals and employers who decline to purchase Obamacare coverage and sets up a transition period for Congress and the next president to replace the health care law with a proposal that reduces costs for families and the federal government. Finally, the bill would restrict Medicaid funding for abortion providers affiliated with Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But just to be clear, Congress has already found even this reduced commitment hard to keep. Earlier in the year, the House used budget reconciliation to restrict Medicaid funding for abortion providers but neglected to repeal the core provisions in Obamacare.

The House’s partial-repeal approach fell far short in a number of important ways, including leaving most of the law’s taxes in place as well as $1.5 trillion of the $1.7 trillion in new spending needed to finance Medicaid expansion and new premium subsidies for Obamacare-compliant insurance plans.

The House blamed its anemic opening bid on a procedural hurdle unique to the Senate known as the “Byrd Rule,” which prohibits provisions that are extraneous to the budget process from being included in reconciliation bills. Based on what the Senate was actually able to achieve, we now know that these excuses don’t hold water.

When the House starts a new session next week, it will have a chance to make good on one of its 2015 resolutions: Lawmakers can vote on repealing the budgetary heart of Obamacare. Even with the presidential veto, a vote to repeal will set a new and important floor for what can be accomplished using budget reconciliation.

Paul Winfree is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times

About the Author

Paul Winfree Director, Thomas A Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and Richard F. Aster Fellow
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Obamacare, Budget Process