Conservative Priorities for the Annual Congressional Budget

Background: In 2011, Congress and President Obama agreed to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cuts to the federal spending totaling $917 billion over the next 10 years. The agreement dubbed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), has been a key tool to limit discretionary spending in the midst of exploding deficits and runaway federal spending. Unfortunately, ever since there has been a bipartisan push to increase the BCA caps to allow higher spending.

In late 2015, as part of then-Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to “clean out the barn,” Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) breaking the spending caps established under the BCA by $50 billion in fiscal year 2016 and $30 billion in fiscal year 2017.

The Purpose of a Budget: The annual budget process is Congress’ chance to set its own vision for the nation’s finances — a conservative vision reduces the size and scope of the federal government. It is an opportunity to set a new course and not continue to ratify the excessive spending of the past. Passing a budget for its own sake, regardless of spending levels, is neither conservative nor fair to the people who elected them to office. Conservatives should not simply rubber stamp a bad budget.

Conservative Priorities: At the end of last year, 167 Republican members voted against the BBA spending levels and 95 voted against the trillion dollar “omnibus” bill. Those same members are now being asked again to keep the higher spending levels in place for fiscal year 2017, even with a new Speaker. Conservatives should insist on the following priorities:

  • Keep top-line discretionary spending levels previously established under the BCA of 2011.
  • Balance within ten years without accounting gimmicks we have seen used in the past.
  • Eliminate Obamacare revenues from being counted towards balancing the budget, as the law should and must fully be repealed under a Republican President in 2017.
  • Explicitly reaffirm support for premium support in Medicare and other policy reforms.

Claim and Response

Claim: Returning to “regular order” appropriations bills should be our focus. This cannot occur without a budget.

Response: This is not true. Congress can and has considered appropriations bills in the past without an agreement between the House and Senate. Each chamber could “deem” its own budget.

Claim: Passing a budget at higher spending levels will allow conservatives to devote a larger focus to passing significant policy reforms.

Response: While many policy proposals would likely be included in any budget, Congress does not need a bad (or any) budget agreement to consider stand-alone policy reforms such as tax reform or welfare reform.

Claim: The budget does not rely on the revenues from Obamacare. It merely assumes the same amount of revenue under current laws and that any changes to tax policy will be “revenue neutral.”

Response: While Obamacare may be the law of the land, Republicans in Congress and those running for the White House have repeatedly promised to repeal it in 2017. With this in mind, Republican budgets in the past have correctly scrapped Obamacare spending, but mistakenly kept Obamacare’s $1 trillion dollars of revenue in order to balance the budget. Republicans get away with this gimmick by claiming future changes to our tax policy will be “revenue neutral” without explaining how that will happen. In other words, they are arguing if Congress votes to cut Obamacare taxes in repeal then they would have to raise revenue somewhere else. In this year’s budget, conservatives must insist on a balanced budget that truly balances, without using Obamacare gimmicks.

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GOP Senate Rubber Stamping Obama’s Judicial Nominations

We’ll do audacious executive action over the course of the rest of the year, I’m confident of that,” promised Barack Obama’s chief of staff.  Given the president’s unlawful unilateral actions, there is no reason to doubt that promise. Despite those promises and growing opposition from within their own conference, Senate Republican leaders continue to confirm federal judges nominated by President Obama.

On Wednesday, senators will be asked to vote in favor of John Michael Vazquez of New Jersey.

Vazquez was recommended for nomination by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) 4%.  Few would be surprised to learn he donated thousands of dollars to both Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) 10%, but even fewer would contend Mr.Vazquez would lift a finger to rein in this president’s executive overreach.

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Congressional Boarding Pass

Setting the 2017 Policy Agenda

No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all—that is our motto.
— Speaker Paul D. Ryan

Americans are hungry for leaders who will address concerns about the relationship between mobility, economic dynamism, concentrated power, and collusion between special interests and government.

The Heritage Foundation’s American Perception Initiative (API) “demonstrates the centrality of the two core themes of this vision—’opportunity’ without the corrupting influence of ‘favoritism’.” That is the central challenge facing our nation: creating opportunity for all and favoritism to none.

BUDGET

While nonbinding and frequently ignored, the budget is an opportunity to put forward a roadmap to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Heritage market research found conservatives have “high credibility” on issues related to government spending and reform.

Balance. A 2013 NRCC poll found a balanced budget message proved to be a winning argument, even in purple districts. The budget should balance at lower spending levels, without gimmicks, and without relying on Obamacare’s tax revenues, which will be repealed come 2017.

Recommit to Premium Support. The House and Senate budgets should explicitly reaffirm the GOP’s commitment to advancing premium support in Medicare.

OBAMA AGENDA

Congress must find new leverage points to reassert its constitutional authority and rein in executive overreach — guns, amnesty, environment, labor, etc — during the final year of the Obama administration.

Legislative Riders. Appropriations riders can be part of the strategy, but final action is unlikely before September. In the interim, riders should be attached to bipartisan priorities that are likely to move through the process.

Nominees. Given the Obama administration’s disregard for Congress’s role in our constitutional system of government, the Senate should refuse to confirm the president’s nominees unless those nominees are directly related to our national security.

WELFARE REFORM

In 1996, Congress reformed one welfare program out of roughly 80 means-tested programs. Heritage market research found the conservative approach to welfare reform “has the ability to significantly increase support for the conservative vision for America.”

Strong Work Requirement. The most notable component of the 1996 welfare reform was a work requirement. Any welfare reform proposal should include strong work requirements. Last year in Maine, work requirements for childless, able-bodied adults without dependents caused an 80-percent reduction in that group’s food stamp use.

Restore Federalism. The 1996 reform also froze nominal spending on TANF — a cap that remains in place today. Congress should aim to restore federalism in welfare policy by reducing the long-term federal footprint through real spending reductions and a nominal cap, allowing states to make decisions about how much revenue should be devoted to their welfare programs.

HEALTHCARE REFORM

According to Heritage’s market research, a fresh start for health care reform “is overall one of the strongest issues on the conservative agenda” and offers “a significant ability to further increase identification with the conservative vision for America.”

Pre-Obamacare Baselines. America’s health care system prior to Obamacare was deeply flawed. Any conservative reform proposal should envision a smaller federal role than that which existed before Obamacare, with the goal of reducing overall healthcare costs rather than matching Obamacare’s aspiration for universal coverage. At a bare minimum that means reverting back to the pre-Obamacare spending and tax baselines. Simply redirecting and rebranding bloated Obamacare spending towards a less bad system is unacceptable.

TAX REFORM

The current tax system is stifling opportunity for all Americans, not just corporations. Heritage market research finds that tax reform “is the most relevant issue of the conservative agenda.” The conservative approach — fair and simple, reward work and savings, and eliminate loopholes for special interests — “is highly credible and recognized as a strong solution.”

Ditch Neutrality. The beltway orthodoxy — tax reform should be revenue neutral, distributionally neutral, and conform with other liberal constructs — crippled Mitt Romney’s ability to campaign on reform and stifled the most recent congressional effort to draft pro-growth reforms. With revenues as a percentage of GDP approaching Clinton-era levels, congressional reform efforts should reflect this emerging consensus on the right.

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MEMO: Fight Obama’s Overreach by Refusing to Confirm Nominees

To:
From:
Date:
Subject:
Interested Parties
Heritage Action
January 15, 2016
Fight Obama’s Overreach by Refusing to Confirm Nominees

President Obama began his final year in office by taking aim at the Second Amendment and unilaterally shredding immigration caps set by Congress without congressional approval. On Wednesday, his chief of staff Denis McDonough made clear the year would continue in a similar fashion, announcing that “We’ll do audacious executive action over the course of the rest of the year, I’m confident of that.”

Repeated executive power grabs threaten to undo the system of checks and balances written into our Constitution. The president’s actions have not only marginalized the legislature, they have also begun eroding the independence of our nation’s judicial system by stacking the courts with liberal judges who interpret the Constitution to serve this president’s radical progressive agenda.

Our system of government requires each branch to jealously guard its prerogatives, and President Obama routinely tramples over the legislature’s prerogatives. Senators should not stand by idly for the next 12 months. They must act to reassert their constitutional prerogatives.

Obama’s Undeniable Impact on Federal Courts

While the pace of judicial confirmations has slowed since 2015, much of the damage has already been done. At this point in his presidency, President Obama has had more judicial nominees confirmed than President Bush. He has successfully appointed 55 appeals court judges and 260 district court judges, approximately 30% and 40% of the total seats, respectively. Granting any more lifetime appointments to federal judges whose views align with this president’s radical ideological agenda is indefensible.

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President Obama’s Executive Gun Control

On January 4, 2016, President Obama announced a series of new executive actions intended to increase restrictions on gun sales and access. The statement “clarifies” that the definition of those “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, making it more difficult for individuals to transfer the ownership of guns, and expands staffing for the enforcement of these guidelines. It directs the Social Security Administration to determine how to share private mental health records with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), potentially prohibiting law abiding citizens, including veterans and older Americans, from purchasing or possessing a firearm. It also asserts a strong federal role in “shaping the future of gun safety technology,” laying a foundation to develop additional regulations for gun manufacturers.

The White House cited Congress’s failure to take action as justification for its executive actions. But congressional inaction is no justification for Presidential overreach. Congress should block the President from implementing this policy, which will have a chilling impact on many gun sales.

Expanded Background Checks: The Gun Control Act of 1968 establishes a series of restrictions on those who are “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, with the “principal objective of livelihood and profit.” This provision covers those who operate gun stores, requiring them to secure a Federal Firearms License, keep meticulous records on every person who purchases a gun, and run a background check on a purchaser before sale. This provision contains an exemption for a person “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”

The executive actions clarify that a person can be deemed to be “engaged in the business” of selling guns, “even if the person only conducts firearm transactions at gun shows or through the Internet.” The statement does not set a threshold number of firearms purchased or sold that triggers the requirement to secure a license, but notes that “even a few transactions, when combined with other evidence, can be sufficient to establish that a person is ‘engaged in the business.’” While the Administration relies on court decisions where individuals have been successfully prosecuted consistent with this clarification, many conservatives are concerned that these obscure scenarios are being used to effectively propound a broader definition of what it means to be “engaged in the business” for regulators.

The result is a potentially wide expansion of discretionary authority for the federal government, allowing bureaucrats to target individuals who are selling from personal collections.

To ensure that they avoid penalties up to $250,000 and five years in prison, individuals will need to use a federally licensed dealer as an intermediary, which involves additional fees, a background check, and a record of the transaction. This attempt to reroute a larger number of gun exchanges to federally licensed dealers is consistent with a troubling 2013 memo from the Department of Justice, which argued that effective background checks require gun registration, and that “understanding gun sources requires a sustained and localized surveillance program.” The Left has long wanted a system of universal background checks, which to enforce, eventually requires a gun registry.

To enforce this policy, the administration is proposing to hire an additional 430 agents, 200 for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and 230 for the FBI (to ramp up background checks). This ramped-up enforcement is particularly troubling considering the ATF’s likely intent to target a broader class of individuals.

Mental Health: The White House is proposing an additional $500 million in spending on mental health care, paired with tighter restrictions on the ability of those with a mental health illness to access guns. The administration’s plan is expected to require the Social Security Administration to report the records of approximately 75,000 people with documented mental health issues for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The language is ambiguous, leaving concerns that this provision could affect veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, retirees receiving benefits through a representative payee, and potentially other Americans suffering from mental health illnesses which should have no bearing on their gun rights.

“Gun Safety” Technology: The plan includes a memo directing federal departments to increase research and development, as well as acquisition, of new gun safety technology – such as fingerprint scanners, radio-frequency identification, and microstamping. This could help to set precedent for future regulations of firearms manufacturing.

The administration’s plan, crafted in response to the shootings at San Bernardino, is a sophisticated and dangerous distraction from the real threat of radical Islamic terrorism. By seizing the tragedy as opportunity to push gun control policies, the president is causing genuine harm to citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms, while distracting from the opportunity to confront the real threat of radical Islamic terrorism. Congress should make it clear that President Obama’s “phone and pen” attack on our constitutional rights needs to end, and take action to stop the president’s action.

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