BY MATTHEW LEATHERMAN
As chief deputy whip this session, U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry will be responsible for helping to hold together a fractious Republican bloc when signature legislation comes up for a vote in the House. At no time will that be harder, or more critical, than when it’s time to decide on the federal budget, especially now that President Obama has said he will seek a $74 billion increase in discretionary spending.
The Associated Press reports that that amount is 7 percent above the levels agreed to under the deficit-reduction deal reached in August 2011 that split cuts evenly between military and domestic programs.
So now McHenry of Gastonia faces a tangle. Some Republicans want to roll back those cuts to the Pentagon, even if that means doing away with the entire savings package, while others are willing to stick with the compromise.
McHenry’s first allegiance should be to preserve the savings that House Republicans negotiated with the president in 2011.
On Capitol Hill, tea partiers are no longer the insurgents. They clearly would like to cut more deeply than they were able to in the 2011 deal, which set a 10-year savings target of $1.2 trillion. Yet now they have to divide their attention between pressing for more cuts and fending off other Republicans who want that money back.
Nearly half of these 10-year savings are taken from the Defense Department, a clarion priority for rival Republicans who believe that spending more inherently makes us stronger. Those members are the real insurgents within House Republicans’ bloc.
Republicans with these views gravitate to the Armed Services committee and Defense Appropriations subcommittee, and both panels lament the August 2011 savings deal. Cutting the Pentagon diminishes their influence because congressional power flows directly from budgetary control, and such cuts often lead to an economic downturn in their home districts, which depend on the defense industry and its wages. Republicans in this camp would accept a higher budget if more money went to the Pentagon.
At the White House, President Obama is willing to oblige. Last week the White House announced that it will permit defense leaders to submit a budget request on Monday that exceeds their allotment by $35 billion.
The president isn’t about to shift money from domestic accounts to offset a raise for the Pentagon, though. He wants to complement the defense increase by adding the same amount to domestic priorities, too. Fiscal responsibility matters as much to him as it does to House Republicans, but his method for balancing federal finances includes increasing revenue by closing tax loopholes, and that’s anathema to Obama’s conservative counterparts.
McHenry will be asked to untie this tangle. One option is to spend more across the board by taking on more debt. Obama might be willing, and revanchist Republicans would be just as tempted. Take Sen. Lindsey Graham. “Whatever it takes within reason to get this problem fixed,” Graham commented, “is what I’m willing to do.” Another option is stick to the deal, which is producing real savings for American taxpayers even though it requires everyone involved to accept some tradeoffs.
McHenry has the political sense to challenge the president and build rapport among House Republicans for as long as possible, as he showed by remarks in November: “Once we establish our guiding principles in March with our budget resolution, then that sets the stage for negotiating with the president on the debt limit.” Picking up the idea again later, he projected that “the pressure will be less on House Republicans and Senate Republicans, and more on the president to come to the table to have some longer-range agreement for debt and deficits.”
Like the president’s $74 billion requested increase, this is a bargaining stance. The gut check will come when House Republicans have to send something to Obama that he’ll actually sign, as they eventually must in order to avoid either shutdown or default. The August 2011 savings package remains law, and McHenry should steer votes to support it until a politically viable savings alternative comes up.
Cutting domestic priorities in order to release the Pentagon from fiscal discipline won’t do it. Nor will simply giving up on savings and spending more everywhere, as some House Republicans paradoxically may prefer. McHenry knows this, but many within his own party will pressure him to give in so that the Pentagon and its overseers in Congress can regain their maximalist financial power.
Leadership will be needed at this point, and it will be McHenry’s job as chief deputy whip – an arcane title that masks its leadership importance – to step up, impress upon his colleagues the importance of sticking to compromises already struck and preserve the savings that Washington collectively was able to create in 2011.
Matthew Leatherman is a Raleigh-based adviser to the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.