On Spending, Is Rand Paul the Last Man Standing?
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only legislator to vote against Senate Concurrent Resolution 3, which sets the framework for budget negotiations in the 115th Congress. His vote was dismissed as an alleged example of libertarian extremism, but I suggest this vote is a measure of the extent to which legislators have lost touch with their constituents.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 3 proposes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without changes to other parts of the budget. The truly surprising (and disappointing) part of the legislation is it exempts future health care legislation replacing the ACA from current budget rules meant to impose fiscal discipline. In other words, although the legislation would repeal ACA, it would also allow the government to continue spending money at ACA-imposed levels. Because we can expect health care spending to grow at even higher rates than those projected by the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation is particularly problematic.
Even more shocking is Senate Concurrent Resolution 3 assumes business as usual in future budget negotiations. Total spending is projected to grow from $3.2 trillion to $4.9 trillion over the next decade. Annual deficits will roughly double to more than $1 trillion; and total debt will increase from $20 trillion to $29 trillion.
In a press release, Paul explained his “no” vote on Senate Concurrent Resolution 3:
“As a physician, I cannot wait to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a health care system that relies on freedom to provide quality, comprehensive, and affordable care. But putting nearly $10 trillion more in debt on the American people’s backs through a budget that never balances is not the way to get there. It is the exact opposite of the change Republicans promised, and I cannot support it, even as a placeholder.”
In January, Paul introduced S. 222, the Obamacare Replacement Act, which would repeal Obamacare and balance the budget by 2024. In this legislation, Paul calls for fundamental reforms of Medicare and Medicaid, significantly reducing the cost of these entitlement programs. There is no question such reforms are essential to address the current federal fiscal crisis. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates rising health care costs are the single most important cause of the projected increase in deficits and debt in coming decades.
Unfortunately, the prospects for passage of the health care reforms proposed by Paul are not good. The universal support of Senate Concurrent Resolution 3, with Paul the lone dissenter, suggests legislators are not willing to enact the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid required to balance the budget.
Nor should we look to Trump for leadership on this issue. He has made it clear entitlement reform is not on his agenda, stating, “A balanced budget is fine, but sometimes you have to fuel the well in order to really get the economy going.” Paul Krugman and the Neo-Keynesians must be screaming bloody murder over Trump’s theft of their mantra.
For those of us expecting more from the 115th Congress, passage of Senate Concurrent Resolution 3 is a bitter pill to swallow. As I argued in “Capitulation before the first shots are fired,” published February 2, Republicans in Congress have chosen a budget process likely to result in deficits and debt. This is a familiar story that we have witnessed for decades. For example, in 2016, Republicans in the House drafted a concurrent resolution calling for significant reductions in federal spending, which they said would help balance the budget, over the next decade. But later in the year, they approved budgets calling for significant increases in spending.
In 2016 alone, legislators proposed 192 bills to address budget deficits and the national debt. Paul’s bill, the Cut Cap and Balance Act of 2015, was one of only a dozen of these bills to be reported out of committee, and like other similar measures, it was rejected by his fellow members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. On second thought, perhaps it is not surprising Paul was the only legislator to vote in opposition of Senate Concurrent Resolution 3; supporting a balanced budget in the face of legislative apathy is a losing proposition.
Despite his failures to get significant reforms passed in Congress, it is Paul, not his colleagues, who is in touch with his constituents. Nationwide polls conducted on behalf of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, of which I am a founding member, reveal 83 percent of citizens support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
If Paul is the only legislator in the Senate willing to stand up for a balanced budget when the chips are down, perhaps it is time for citizens to look for an alternative solution to the federal fiscal crisis. Twenty-eight state legislatures have now passed resolutions proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Only 34 states are needed to call an Article V convention, which, given the current restraints in Washington, D.C., may be a better option than waiting for Congress or the president to act.
Barry W. Poulson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado and a founding member of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force.