Congress returns to Washington next week with a full plate of urgent fiscal issues awaiting it, but how well-prepared are the Republican majorities to tackle these priorities in a fiscally disciplined way and respond to Democratic opposition?
Lawmakers will quickly need to steps to address the debt ceiling, spending for the new fiscal year that begins October 1, how to structure a disaster relief bill for the Gulf Coast, and how to accomplish tax reform.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., sits on the House Budget Committee and is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He expects any debt ceiling hike to include significant spending restraints going forward.
“In the past, Republicans wouldn’t even put a clean debt ceiling increase on a Democrat president’s desk. much less a Republican, without any reforms or discipline going forward,” said Brat.
Even if Congress hits a stalemate over the conditions of the debt ceiling hike or faces the threat of a government shutdown, Brat expects there to be no worries over U.S. solvency as the debt and the interest on the debt are still paid.
But going forward, Brat says lawmakers must acknowledge the fiscal realities staring the U.S. in the face and begin to address them with significant spending restraints.
“We’re $20 trillion in debt and we’ve got about a $600 billion deficit just this year under Republican stewardship. That’s our brand. We all run on fiscal responsibility. We have to give the American people some assurance we take this seriously and it’s got to show up on paper,” said Brat.
He says Washington needs to answer a simple question.
“Should we be doing more spending at the federal level or less. We’ve got to start showing some restraint or we’re going to put the kids in a real world of hurt,” said Brat.
Brat points out that the burden on the next generation is not just a talking point. He says kids starting kindergarten this year will graduate college facing a fiscal catastrophe if major changes are not made.
“Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid are all insolvent about 2034, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. So those kids, when they graduate from high school, that’s 2030. When they graduate from college, that’s 2034. That’s when all of our major programs are insolvent, upside down, and will experience severe cuts,” said Brat.
In April, Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through September. At the time, Republican leaders said it was not the time for major battles over spending, and the proper time for that would be during the appropriations debates in September.
So will they happen? Brat says not to hold our breath.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Brat. “It’s kind of like the health care debate. The surest sign that you’re going to get it right is you’ve got to have messaging coming from the White House and then from the Speaker’s office and then from Mitch McConnell’s office, that we’re going to get serious. That probably takes a year or two of prep work. On health care we didn’t do that. So we failed on health care.”
Brat admits pushing spending cuts that will actually make a dent in the debt and deficit are not popular.
“It’s hard because it’s like telling people you’ve got to eat spinach but some discipline is in order,” said Brat. “We’ve got to get our ducks in order and we’ve got to make some hard decisions and the American people want to see us stand up and start leading on the fiscal side.”
Brat is also urging Trump to go on offense when it comes to the debate over spending. He says Trump and the GOP need to stay on message that any shutdown is the fault of Senate Democrats.
“Eight Democrat senators are threatening to shut down anything you do that are in the president’s wheelhouse or the Congress’ priority list unless they get their way. I don’t think it’s on the president for the shutdown. I think he just needs to go to the bully pulpit and explain to the American people how government works,” said Brat.
When it comes to tax reform, Brat sees plenty of collaboration and coordination among the White House and GOP congressional leaders. He says Republicans have not choice but to get tax reform done this year, especially after the failed attempt to address health care.
“We tanked on health care after we said we’re going to repeal it for seven years in a row and then the Senate couldn’t even pass a skinny bill, which was more like a Madison Avenue tag line than a responsible policy position on how to run one-fifth of the economy,” said Brat, who also says Congress cannot give up on fixing a badly flawed health care system.
Brat is also siding strongly on the side of those pushing for generous disaster relief for the recovery and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey. But he says unrelated pork barrel spending needs to be left out. He says the type of pet projects that often make into these bills were roundly rejected by Americans of all political stripes in 2016.
“It was a movement pretty much all the way across the spectrum from Bernie (Sanders) all the way over to Trump. The American people are just sick of the cronies, and the earmarks, and the pork spending, and the idea that the system is rigged and that the cronies, and lawyers, and lobbyists are getting the money and they’re not,” said Brat.
He says the people in his Virginia district made it very clear over recess that they expect Republicans to restore fiscal sanity in Washington.
“They’re frustrated. They’re like, ‘You guys can’t shoot straight. Get it done,'” said Brat.