Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Are Republicans moving the goalposts on the budget debate?

Democrats charge Republicans with moving the goalpost.
Democrats charge Republicans with moving the goalpost.

In the partisan jockeying in the budget standoff, Democrats contend that Republicans have moved the goalposts by changing their bottom-line number.

President Barack Obama made the point four times during an appearance in the White House briefing room:

"Speaker Boehner, Chairman Rogers, the Republican appropriations chairman -- their original budget proposed $73 billion in cuts. We have now agreed to $73 billion worth of cuts," Obama said, yet the Republicans haven't gone along.

The facts aren't clear enough to rate his claim on the Truth-O-Meter, but we thought it would be valuable to put them in context. Obama isn’t totally wrong here, but he’s not telling the full story.

Assessing his claim is difficult because we don't have enough details about what’s going on behind closed doors. Obama said Democrats have agreed to $73 billion, but the negotiations can also hinge on what parts of the budget are being cut. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said budget riders about abortion and environmental regulations were holding up the deal. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, though, said there was not agreement on a number.

Here’s what we do know: At the beginning of this year, Republicans put forth one set of numbers for spending cuts, then re-grouped and put forward another, larger amount. In that regard, Obama is correct that the number has changed. But it's not correct to refer to the initial number as the Republican position because it only reflected a starting point for party leaders.

On Feb. 3, 2011, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., announced targets for reducing spending would be $35 billion less than the previous year, and $73.6 billion less than the president’s budget request.

Those amounts were to be communicated to various subcommittees who would decide which programs would get cut and which would get funded.

But instead, some Republican members rebelled, saying the amounts weren’t large enough to meet campaign promises they made in 2010. (We reported on the brewing objections before the numbers were officially released.) Tea party supporters pressed for the larger cuts.

By Feb. 10, Republican leaders put forth new numbers with additional cuts, which became the legislation they put forward in H.R. 1. The new spending cuts removed $99.6 billion from Obama’s budget request.

The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1 on a largely party-line vote, 235-189, on Feb. 19. The Senate, though, rejected it, 44-56, on March 9.

We ran the numbers by several budget analysts. They agreed that there was a set of numbers put out at $73 billion. But they disagreed as to whether it’s fair to consider that the Republicans "original" proposal. It’s unlikely that the original, lower number would have survived a vote if tea party Republicans had voted against it along with the Democratic minority.

"At a certain point, this strikes me as splitting hairs. It is certainly accurate to say that Boehner and Rogers proposed a $73 billion-cut proposal. It is also accurate to say that the actual bill, H.R. 1 included $100 billion," said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Which is the ‘original budget’? Who knows! Seriously, I think it's hard to parse this one."

So Democrats aren’t wrong when they say Republicans initially proposed one set of numbers, then later came to another. But it’s a stretch to say they were the firm position of House Republicans.