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House progressives think defense and non-defense budgets should be equal — and they’re putting up a fight

The budget caps debate splitting up House Democrats, explained.

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Rep. Pramila Jayapal is leading the charge.
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Progressive lawmakers in the House torpedoed Democrats’ first attempt at a budget caps vote, as Congress tries to prevent across-the-board cuts to both military and domestic programs come October.

The most liberal members in Congress are demanding that domestic programs get just as much money as the military does — a break from the norm in Congress, which typically approves higher spending caps for defense.

The House Budget Committee passed a budget resolution that would increase the limits on defense spending to $664 billion (a 2.6 percent increase from 2019) and non-defense spending to $631 billion in 2020 (a 5.7 percent increase from 2019). The proposal followed a longstanding principle of “parity” increasing both budgets by the same dollar amount. But progressives don’t want to play that game anymore, forcing Democrats to abruptly cancel the vote on the budget caps the day before it was supposed to happen.

Progressive Caucus leaders stood firm in wanting domestic non-defense spending to increase by $33 billion to be equal to defense spending, whipping enough votes against the Budget Committee’s caps proposal to tank it.

“There are further conversations we must have to reach consensus between the wings of our caucus, left and right,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who chairs the Budget Committee, said. “But we all have a responsibility to govern and obligations to the American people, so our work continues.”

House Democrats have been pushing to get an early start on budget and spending negotiations to prevent a sequester and government shutdown, which will be triggered on October 1 unless Congress acts. Leaders hoped to vote on a budget as an opening bid in negotiations with Republicans to avoid the sequester.

There’s a case to be made that pushing the budget caps debate down the line will give Republicans more leverage in negotiations, since the White House might find cuts more appealing than a domestic spending boost. So instead, House Democrats were forced to punt the work to appropriators, hoping a budget caps deal can come together later. And progressives gave leadership the green light to allow appropriators to begin their work without a caps deal. Their main concern is making sure domestic spending gets a serious boost.

Of course, the ultimate consequence of not reaching a deal on budget caps with Republicans at all is serious — it would lead to sequestration, the dreaded across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense funding. The threat of the sequester has been looming over the federal government since 2011 as the result of a fight between then-President Barack Obama and then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

For now, Democrats are just deciding their opening offer to Senate Republicans. And progressives are arguing that the House should be bolder.

“I think in many ways this is a great experiment in fantasy Congress, kind of like fantasy football,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) said Tuesday. “It’s not necessarily as real as we’re being told.”

An Obama-era deal with Republicans to stave off economic calamity got us here

The need for budget caps goes back to 2011, when an Obama-era impasse over the debt ceiling brought the American economy to near calamity. Republicans in the House, led by Speaker Boehner, refused to increase the debt limit without Congress addressing the national debt. It’s something White House chief of staff and former Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney played a role in back when he was one of the House’s archconservatives.

The face-off, which put the United States at risk of defaulting on its debt, pushed President Obama to sign the Budget Control Act. The law instructed Congress to find more than $1 trillion in government spending cuts by the end of the year or risk a sequester, which cuts all discretionary programs — defense and non-defense — across the board (except for entitlement programs like Medicaid and Social Security). Mulvaney was one of the Tea Party agitators who worked to block any increase to the debt limit, eventually forcing Obama’s hand to sign the BCA.

Congress failed to thoughtfully cut spending, which triggered automatic budget cuts in 2013 and imposed annual, more restrictive budget caps until 2021 — the sequester. The across-the-board budget cuts and established caps would amount to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. According to a 2015 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding for domestic programs was essentially flat between 2012 and 2015, meaning there were substantial cuts when adjusted for inflation.

Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly voted to raise the budget caps and give sequester relief, but those adjustments are set to expire this October.

Put simply, either Congress has to vote to raise the budget caps for defense and domestic spending or the country will go to sequester-level spending — which would mean massive budget cuts.

The congressional process to fund the government, known as appropriations, runs on two tracks: 1) discretionary spending, which is split between defense funding for the military and non-defense funding, which covers areas like education, science, and government; and 2) mandatory spending, which most notably covers programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and welfare programs like cash assistance and food stamps.

Typically, appropriators start by agreeing on these topline numbers to begin putting together a government spending bill to keep the government open.

Progressive Democrats want non-defense spending to finally get equal footing in the budget process

Progressives’ chief complaint about House Democrats’ current budget caps proposal is straightforward: They see the nation’s defense budget ballooning and they want domestic programs, whether jobs training programs or infrastructure, to get a boost to the same dollar amount.

“Here is a real opportunity to tell people we are investing in their future,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, said. “I mean, we are giving money to a Pentagon that is increasingly wasteful and hasn’t conducted an audit.”

This is about setting up Democrats for when they do have power across both chambers of Congress and the executive branch, she added.

“If we can get [non-defense discretionary] spending up, then perhaps when we get all three — the House, the White House, and the Senate — maybe we start working on getting military spending down,” she said.

But budget and government spending processes are almost always major compromises in Congress. And in a way, progressives have already made a concession; in a procedural vote for an unrelated bill on net neutrality Tuesday, they approved a provision that allows appropriators — the lawmakers in charge of crafting government spending bills — to proceed with their work without a vote on the budget caps agreement.

Progressive lawmakers and activist groups still billed the canceled budget vote as a win, though.

“When progressives fight, they win,” Elizabeth Beavers, a policy director with Indivisible, a grassroots progressive activist network, said in a statement after the news.

Ironically, so did Republicans, who have attacked the Democratic caps proposal from the start.

“Congress must prove it is serious about offsetting new spending by first enacting deficit reduction legislation — this is the fiscally responsible and right thing to do,” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), who sits on the Budget Committee, said of the caps proposal.

Nothing about the following months will be easy negotiating for Congress. And there’s the added complication that the government breached the debt ceiling on March 1. The Treasury Department has avoided total economic crisis by taking “extraordinary measures” to ensure the US doesn’t default on its loans, but that can only last so long without Congress acting. The idea is that a budget caps deal and debt ceiling increase would happen together.

But first, the parties need to get their ranks in order.