After Blowing Up the Deficit, House Passes Mostly Phony Spending Cuts

Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney tries to keep a straight face when discussing the mostly bogus spending “clawback” bill. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

You might have gotten the impression that after enacting a $1.5 trillion tax cut and then approving a $1.3 trillion appropriations bill, swelling the federal budget deficit to over a cool trillion by 2020, the Republicans who control Congress and the White House don’t care about fiscal responsibility anymore. But that would be a terrible, terrible slur against the GOP’s honor, you see. Because now the House has passed a bill clawing back an enormous, a gigantic, a stupendous $15 billion of that spending. If the Senate approves this Trump-supported measure, surely the U.S. will be back on the road to fiscal probity:

“President Trump and this Administration are fully committed to protecting taxpayers, and Senate passage of this legislation is critical to reducing wasteful, unnecessary spending and making our Federal Government more efficient, effective, and accountable,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement late Thursday.

Calling this measure “critical” to much of anything is a stretch, particularly when you understand that the $15 billion in “spending cuts” is mostly the cancellation of unused budget authority. The Congressional Budget Office, playing its usual skunk-at-the-picnic role, estimated that actual outlays would be reduced by about $1 billion. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler compared it to change found under sofa cushions, given the size of the budget. The “cuts” most discussed as part of the rescissions, involving the Children’s Health Insurance Program, are estimated to amount in the end to zero.

The phony-baloney nature of the rescissions, mostly aimed at on-paper authority to spend money that was not going to be spent, has created a political quandary for people in both parties. Conservative Republicans in safe House districts want to beat their chests and bellow about their brave attack on the welfare state, while some of their more vulnerable colleagues would just as soon point out that no actual kids are going to be denied health insurance by this bill. Similarly, Democrats are torn between denouncing the callousness of the GOP’s simultaneous upper-end tax-cut frenzy and assaults on CHIP, or laughing at the whole enterprise as a fig leaf barely covering naked fiscal malfeasance. Had the White House submitted the significantly larger rescission package that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was allegedly putting together in April, there might be something serious to argue about.

But for the time being, the charade goes on, as Politico reports:

Trump is the first president in two decades to use the rescissions tool. Under an obscure federal law, Congress can take up the White House’s plans for reneging spending with a simple majority in the Senate.

The filibuster-proof powers do expire, however. The Senate must approve the bill by June 22 or be forced to recruit Democrats to the effort.

So that means 50 Republican senators (or, with John McCain absent, all of them) have to go along with the Kabuki theater. If they do, we will have a fine presidential tweet, and if it’s a slow day maybe a brief signing ceremony. If they don’t, this farce will be forgotten quite soon.

After Blowing Up Deficit, House Passes Phony Spending Cuts