Republican Grail Of A Balanced Budget Slips Further Away As Deficit Climbs

Adopting a GOP budget just got a lot tougher with projections of the first deficit increase since Democrats controlled Congress.
House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) will have to work with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to pass a budget.
House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) will have to work with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to pass a budget.
Congressional Quarterly via Getty Images

Congressional Republicans face an uncomfortable reality when they begin drafting a budget blueprint this month: The deficit is rising, and Congress isn't helping.

For the first time since 2009, the federal government's deficit will increase in 2016, according to projections released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office. The government will spend $544 billion more than it takes in this year -- a $105 billion increase in the deficit from 2015, according to the CBO. At the same time, federal spending will increase by more than 20 percent, to $3.9 trillion.

But the real challenge for Republican lawmakers looking to use the spending blueprint as a messaging bill is balancing the budget in 10 years. That's the standard Republicans claim to have met in recent budgets -- though Democrats contest that assertion -- and it's a standard that will become much more difficult to meet as the deficit climbs to what the CBO predicts will be $1.4 trillion by 2026.

"Republicans are stuck between the tea party wing, which doesn't care about the realities of budgeting as long as they can claim they've reached balance, and a group of moderate Republicans, which still believes there are priorities we have to invest in," a Democratic aide familiar with the budget process told The Huffington Post on Tuesday.

"The tea party won last year, and it's doubtful that the Republican Party has moved toward responsible governance," the aide said.

The aide predicted that, instead of acknowledging trouble with trying to balance the budget in 10 years, Republicans would use accounting gimmicks and unrealistic cuts to reach some version of balance. And, with dynamic scoring -- a forecasting process that takes into account the economic impact of legislation -- Republicans probably would claim massive economic growth if a GOP president wins the election and bank the supposed increased tax revenue to get to a balance, the Democratic aide said.

"It will be 'yuge,'" the aide said mockingly, conjuring the image of President Donald Trump magically solving the country's fiscal woes.

Of course, Congress has known the deficit is climbing. It's just that the sudden increase makes a balanced budget really difficult. The surging 2016 deficit is the result of a 7 percent increase in mandatory spending, a 3 percent increase in discretionary dollars, and a 14 percent jump in interest payments on debt.

Legislation that lawmakers passed this year has only worsened that reality. Back in August, the CBO projected a cumulative deficit of $7 trillion over the 2016-2025 decade. Now, partly as a result of bills passed late in 2015 -- including a tax extenders package attached to the omnibus appropriations bill -- the CBO projects an additional $1.5 trillion in cumulative deficit.

These factors are making trouble for budget writers. House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) has been emphatic that the House will pass a budget. Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) sounds less confident about his chamber. But it's unclear whether the GOP budgets will be balanced within the 10-year window.

A Budget Committee aide told HuffPost on Tuesday that the committee was still working on the resolution, declining to elaborate.

In the past, Republicans have passed budgets that balance in five years, which may actually be easier, given the large deficits on the horizon. But such a budget may be viewed by conservatives as gimmicky.

Conservatives seem to be digging in their heels about trimming the 2017 budget number, which was raised in a bipartisan deal in October, to the lower levels of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Cutting the 2017 budget would have the practical effect of getting Republicans to pass appropriations bills at the lower number, which, in turn, probably would prevent Senate Democrats from agreeing to pass appropriations bills on the Senate floor.

It would be a return to the same spending standoff that prevented a regular appropriations process last year. And GOP leaders are unlikely to give in on that demand -- especially after repeatedly telling Republicans they were going to pass appropriations bills this year.

But if the House Freedom Caucus and its roughly 40 members make the lower budget number an official position, they could put leaders in a tough spot.

The Republican budget is unlikely to garner much, if any, Democratic support, so without those conservative votes, GOP leadership may either have to take the lower number or abandon their plan of adopting a budget. And that's assuming that, even with conservative support for the higher number, they could get enough support from the tea party wing -- or from vulnerable moderate Republicans who may not take kindly to things like Medicare and Medicaid cuts in an election year.

As Price said on Tuesday, in response to the CBO outlook, "Our nation has a choice to make."

And as a former senior GOP aide said, in response to the budget challenges presented by the CBO outlook: "Good luck, Dr. Price."

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