When congressional Republicans spent the Obama years warning about the dangers of rising debt and uncontrolled spending, the loudest voices often came from about three dozen lawmakers in the House. That group, the Freedom Caucus, now has the difficult task of facing down a Republican-backed proposal to ramp up spending.
The bipartisan budget deal announced yesterday would annihilate Obama-era spending caps in order to boost federal spending by nearly $400 billion. Limits on military spending imposed by the 2013 sequester would be removed, allowing the Pentagon to receive an additional $80 billion this year and $85 billion next year, The Washington Post reports. Other lids on the discretionary budget would be similarly lifted, allowing for billions of new spending on infrastructure, public health, and disaster aid.
Meadows and his fellow budget hawks have been able to use their influence in the House GOP conference to nudge some policies in a more libertarian direction this session, but with very limited success. They complicated the passage of a mass surveillance reauthorization package, and they forced some changes to the ill-fated "repeal and replace" health care plan. But the caucus completely folded to the leadership on a tax bill that promised to increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion dollars, and it did nothing to stop the October passage of a temporary budget deal foreshadowing this week's proposal to make it rain for the Pentagon (and everyone else).
Now the Freedom Caucus says it is officially opposed to the budget deal:
Official position: HFC opposes the caps deal. We support funding our troops, but growing the size of government by 13 percent is not what the voters sent us here to do.
— House Freedom Caucus (@freedomcaucus) February 8, 2018
Some individual members of the group are also saying the right things about a budget that virtually guarantees the return of trillion-dollar deficits. In a tweet, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called the proposal a "disgusting and reckless" bit of "fiscal insanity." Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told The Hill that he was a "hell no" on the spending plan, which he described as a "debt-junkie's dream." Other members, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have tried to appeal to Speaker Paul Ryan's supposed interest in reducing deficits.
The Freedom Caucus might have lost some of its ability to influence the outcome of the budget deal after going along with the tax bill and last year's spending plan. Republicans convinced themselves—without any hard evidence, not even from the friendliest of policy shops—that the $1.5 trillion tax cut would pay for itself, and now they're being asked to swallow the same fiscal baloney in a different casing.
The bill would require borrowing about $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years to finance discretionary spending increases, according to calculations from Keith Hennessey, a former economic advisor to President George W. Bush. Though the budget deal covers only two years, this huge boost in federal spending—50 percent greater than the tax cut passed just two months ago—is likely to be felt for much longer. "If you increase discretionary spending by $150 [billion] per year for each of the next two years, you establish higher expectations and a new benchmark, a new baseline, against which future discretionary spending proposals will be judged," Hennessey points out.
Allow this budget to pass, and the damage will linger for decades.
How much influence the Freedom Caucus will have over the budget deal will be determined—somewhat ironically—by whether Democrats' appetite for increased spending overwhelmes their interest in immigration policy.
"You'll end up with 120 or 140 Democrats and maybe about the same on Republicans sending this to the president's desk," Meadows said Wednesday. This morning, citing Ryan and Meadows, Bloomberg reported that no more than about 50 Democratic votes might be necessary to counter Republican defections.
It remains unclear whether House Democrats will get on board unless the budget deal comes with a promise to hold a vote on immigration legislation. Ryan has declined to make any commitment to holding an immigration vote, but in a radio interview this morning he expressed confidence that the deal will pass the House.
So the House Freedom Caucus may need to join forces with pro-immigration Democrats if they are to stop the budget deal. If Meadows is right about the bill's prospects, though, there's probably not much that will stop the House from passing this fiscal insanity.