Tensions are rising on Capitol Hill, with Democrats looking to knock down spending caps, and some Republicans looking to gain ground by defunding Obamacare. During the heated political battle, conservative fiscal hawks must focus on protecting the two-year-old spending limits, or taxpayers could be burdened with an increasingly voracious and unrestrained federal budget.
To keep the federal government operating, Congress must pass some sort of funding legislation between now and Sept. 30, which marks the end of the 2013 fiscal year. Many conservatives are demanding that this must-pass bill include language to eliminate funding for Obamacare. Make no mistake — halting the implementation of this pernicious law is certainly a worthy cause. However, efforts to do so should not distract attention from an extremely vital and achievable goal: preserving the spending caps established by the Budget Control Act.
Passed just two years ago, the Budget Control Act was one of the rare recent victories for limited government. The law was passed during tense negotiations between President Obama and congressional Republicans over the debt ceiling — a situation that sounds familiar today.
The Budget Control Act is far from perfect. It is a mixed bag, and several parts of it have already failed. The so-called "supercommittee" it created was supposed to come up with a bipartisan plan for debt reduction, but it could not even muster enough votes to send its plan to Congress for consideration. The act also required both the House and Senate to vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These votes took place, but came up well short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed for approval.
The one aspect of the Budget Control Act that has been successful thus far is the creation of discretionary-spending caps that are scheduled to remain in effect through fiscal year 2021. These caps do not provide all of the far-reaching fiscal discipline that we need to address our long-term debt crisis, but they are an effective curb on the growth of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) spending.
Think of the Budget Control Act as a relatively modest diet for a severely overweight individual. Alone, it won't produce a Herculean physique, but at least it's a start. On the other hand, if this hefty individual abandoned such a small commitment after just a few weeks, he'd be back at Square One.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats are urging Congress to let big government back into the buffet line. The president has already intimated that he will veto spending bills that fail to undo the Budget Control Act cap, and the Senate Appropriations Committee is moving legislation as if the caps do not exist.
Anyone concerned with our nation's finances can't allow this to happen.
It is understandably easy for conservatives to be occupied with dismantling Obamacare as full implementation draws nearer. Certainly, the Obamacare defunding effort is worthwhile, to the extent that it does not divert us from the fight to preserve the Budget Control Act. That's because defunding is a far cry from actually repealing the law. It's merely a temporary patch that would slow implementation for one year. After that, we'd be right back in our current position, or perhaps worse off than we are today.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has tapped into a wide variety of funding sources for Obamacare. These include a "slush fund" called the Prevention and Public Health Fund and the Non-Recurring Expense Fund, from which she will reportedly draw approximately a half-billion dollars for implementation, although the funds are supposed to be used for technology and real estate expenses. A defunding provision would make things tougher on her, but she'd likely utilize a great deal of fiscal flexibility and creative accounting to find the resources to continue implementation of the law.
Defunding is an acceptable strategy, but there are even better ways to go after Obamacare, such as a repeal of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, or even a straightforward one-year delay of the entire law. Both of these are more effective from a policy perspective, more popular with the general public, and more likely to become law.
Any way you cut it, stopping Obamacare shouldn't be the only fiscal diet plan in the debate over funding the government. Fiscal conservatives need to make sure the federal budget keeps getting leaner while protecting the modest gains we've made toward fiscal restraint. Otherwise, the small step forward we took in 2011 with the Budget Control Act will be followed by two enormous steps back just a couple of years later.
Brandon Arnold is vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.