E minus 36: Budget on autopilot, so are a lot of other things

After assembling in Washington on September 8, the members of Congress acted on a handful of items while putting off many others, engaged in some political posturing, and then recessed a week earlier than scheduled.  They will not return until after the elections in November.  Congress heads home after exhausting eight days of work, Russell Berman, thewire.com, 9/18/14. http://tinyurl.com/kxemt9s

The president did not seek congressional authorization for air strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, but funding was approved to begin training “moderate” Syrian rebels for the ground fighting.  Senate passes Syria resolution, clearing it for Obama’s signature, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 9/18/14.
http://tinyurl.com/mumxp5z It’s unclear, however, whether the moderates are actually on board. Syrian rebels slam US, conservativebyte.com, 9/25/14. http://tinyurl.com/mhxr2rr

The charter of the Export-Import Bank was extended until 6/30/15, which was in line with SAFE’s earlier prediction that politics (strong big business support) might trump conservative zeal to shut the EIB down. Corporate welfare has nine lives,

Finally, a continuing resolution was enacted that will keep government funds flowing until December 11. H.J. Res. 124,

The text of the CR is obscure, but its general thrust is simple.  The government will begin fiscal year 2015 on October 1 without a detailed budget for “discretionary” expenditures ($1+ trillion per year), let alone effective controls over “mandatory” expenditures, which make up the larger part of total outlays (nearly $4 trillion per year).

Such fiscal laxity has become habitual in recent years, and last fall there was a “government shutdown” when Republicans attempted to extract concessions for supporting a CR/debt limit increase.  The public reaction was unfavorable, and GOP leaders vowed they would not fall into the shutdown trap again.

There is no reason to believe the situation will improve after the election. Another continuing resolution during the “lame duck” session is a near certainty, with more CRs likely to follow.

For all of SAFE’s sage advice, our political leaders don’t seem to have grasped the importance of spending the taxpayers’ money wisely.  If any candidates in the upcoming elections favor a balanced federal budget, they haven’t been very vocal about it.

To demonstrate, let’s review where the parties stand on the issues being talked about – and then critique the Republican (challengers’) approach on the fiscal problem.

A. Issues matrix – The key issues are the economy, international threats, GovCare, immigration, deficits, and leadership.  We have attempted to synthesize the Democratic vs. Republican positions, in some cases using blunter language than the party leaders do.

Issues Matrix 09-29-14

Does the foregoing place more stress on criticizing the opposition than offering positive solutions?  Sure, but politics often works that way, as shown by the vast amount of money spent on attack ads.  Why do negative political ads work?  Discovery.com, 5/16/12. http://tinyurl.com/lwe3vc9

One reason that negative messages are so compelling is that we are emotional creatures, wired to pay attention to harmful information, said Joel Weinberger, a psychologist at Adelphi University in New York and owner of Implicit Strategies, a consulting firm that investigates unconscious influences on behavior. *** People are more focused on negative information. People stop for a car wreck, but there are no traffic jams for beautiful flowers."

Heavy campaign spending is bolstering vulnerable Democratic candidates this year, and could potentially thwart the Republican attempt to pick up six seats and win control of the Senate.  Why a GOP Senate majority is still in doubt, Karl Rove, 9/18/14.

As of this writing, between Sept. 1 and election day, Democratic Senate candidates, party committees and outside groups have run or placed $109 million in television advertising, while Republican candidates, party committees and groups have $85 million in television time. *** In Alaska, Democrats have spent $6.4 million, Republicans $3.6 million. In Arkansas, Democrats have spent $6.2 million for TV ads, Republicans $4.6 million. In Colorado, it's $8.5 million for Democratic ads, $7 million for Republicans. In Iowa it's $8.5 million for Democrats, $5.6 million for GOP spots. In Louisiana, it's $5.7 million for Democrats, $5.6 million for Republicans. North Carolinians will see more than twice as many Democratic ads as Republican spots—$17.6 million to $7.8 million.

In both these races and others, moreover, many of the political ads have a sharply negative thrust:

  • Democratic themes include the purported GOP war on women, stingy education spending, and suggestions that Republicans might cut entitlement programs.  See, e.g., “Outrageous and false, Democratic attack ads reek of desperation,” Andrew Stiles, Washington Free Beacon, 9/3/14.  http://tinyurl.com/npn34ln
  • GOP ads have targeted GovCare, the IRS, and most recently national security concerns, while reminding voters that Democratic legislators will invariably vote to support the president.  Republicans shift attack ads to national security, Janet Hook, WSJ/Washington Wire, 9/19/14. http://tinyurl.com/pnqxgo8

People are seeking leaders and ideas to believe in, however, so a positive campaign message is ultimately essential.  Among Republicans making this point is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the architect of his party’s Contract with America in 1994.  GOP heads into midterms without detailed conservative manifesto, Joseph Lawler, Washington Examiner, 9/19/14.

“The fact that we do not have positive themes and positive issues is going to cost us seats this fall because moderates and independents aren’t going to turn out. It’s an enormous mistake,” said Gingrich.  He went on to warn that Republican candidates need to embrace a proactive agenda.  “You just have to sound like you’re more than anti-Obama and you’re more than some pathetically narrow, negative politician whose primary role in life is to raise money for your consultant to buy attack ads.”

Reacting to such criticism, Speaker John Boehner recently laid out a five-point plan to reboot the US economy.  Fix our tax code – solve our spending problem – reform our legal system – rein in our regulatory system – improve our education system.  Remarks to the American Enterprise Institute, 9/18/14.

B. GOP position on the fiscal problem – Opinions about Speaker Boehner’s plan varied, but many conservatives (including us) felt that it was very bland and provided little reason to vote Republican except “trust us rather than them.”  Certainly that was true when it came to the fiscal problem, or other areas in which disconcerting changes may be needed to secure longer-term benefits.
Instead of being at the top of the list presented to the AEI, ideas to “solve our spending problem” were preceded by a series of generalities about fixing the tax system.

Boehner blamed “spending more money than we’ve brought in” for 53 of the last 60 years on demographic trends without mentioning a woefully deficient budget system and/or failures of the political leaders concerned.

And instead of proposing a concerted attack on wasteful government spending, wherever it might reside, Boehner offered a solitary suggestion that was so vague as to be obviously non-actionable. 

We need to put [entitlement programs] on a more sustainable path, which we can do without making radical changes.   
AARP is currently stoking opposition to any
significant cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare, etc.  Take a look at this communiqué, which is representative of their tireless efforts, and the task of putting these programs on a more sustainable path may seem a bit more difficult than Boehner made it sound. http://tinyurl.com/o6uf6av

Also, public anxiety about GovCare seems to be receding, at least for the moment, and Republicans have been dialing back their attacks in this area out of fear of being cast as ogres who want to deprive people of healthcare benefits.  Republicans shift gears on Obamacare attack ads, Matt Vespa, Townhall.com, 8/20/14.

[The] more people enroll under the Affordable Care Act, the harder it’ll be for conservatives to campaign against Obamacare and say it's a lousy law.  It's definitely true, but whether we like it or not, the larger electorate will see these ads as Republican attempts to take away their healthcare. That problem will be magnified once more Americans are enrolled under the ACA by 2016. Will our 2016 GOP nominee really campaign on a platform that seeks to take away insurance from millions of Americans–or at least that’s how the media will frame it? If that’s the case, Election Day 2016 will be a short night, with a Democrat back in the White House.

Even the resolution just approved to keep the government going may have had an effect the members of Congress were not anxious to disclose, namely bumping up previously agreed spending levels.  Retiring Senator Tom Coburn: Congress lied to America about spending, Patrick Howley, Daily Caller, 9/25/14.

“The reason Americans have such poor view of Washington is because we’re dishonest with the American public in what we do,” Coburn told [radio host Laura] Ingraham. “In the continuing resolution [...] we’re $47 billion above what we said we would be [in the Ryan-Murray bill].”

One pundit suggested that the GOP should make up for lost time by tackling the fiscal problem and other issues aggressively at the start of the new Congress. Republicans must act with urgency if party captures Senate, Hugh Hewitt, Washington Examiner, 9/29/14.

[Republicans] ought to plan to present and pass through both chambers a GOP variation of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget on day one of the new Congress in January — one modified from last year's House budget only primarily by a major increase in Pentagon spending.

Such a move seems wildly improbable under John Boehner’s leadership, so the election of a new Speaker would presumably be a prerequisite.  House conservatives are said to be talking about such a change, although similar talk has come to naught in the past.  The plot to seize the speakership from John Boehner, Rick Moran, American Thinker, 9/24/14. 

Finally, the expiration of the continuing resolution in December may set the stage for a bargain that will set spending levels for the balance of the fiscal year before the new congressional lineup (presumably more favorable to the GOP) takes effect.  It’s shocking that House Republicans voluntarily put their party in such a position; they should have known better. Beware the lame duck budget, Robert Romano, netrightdaily.com, 9/3/14.

An amendment to extend the CR until April 17, 2015 was proposed in the Senate, along with a passel of other amendments, but by then it was too late.  Sen. Cruz opposes continuing resolution, press release, 9/18/14.

Whatever happens in the upcoming elections, don’t expect serious action on the fiscal problem – or other major issues - any time soon.  No wonder the focus is already shifting to 2016, when conditions may be right for a serious debate about the need for a change in direction – if a fiscal meltdown or some other disaster doesn’t strike in the meantime.  2014 & 2016: A tale of two elections, Steve Deace, Townhall.com, 9/27/14.

The conservatives I talk to believe two things are likely to occur as a result of November 4th: (1) Republicans will re-take the U.S. Senate. (2) Nothing will change.

It's a good thing the energy level for 2016 is already high. Conservatives are going to have to coalesce behind their champion early on if they want to avoid a repeat of the last two cycles, which saw a weak establishment candidate take advantage of a GOP base splintered among several different options.

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