A few days before Christmas, the lame-duck Congress voted for a $1.7 trillion spending bill, more than 4,000 pages long, without enough time to read it and with no opportunity for members to debate or offer amendments on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The bill was an “omnibus,” meaning it was a combination of many smaller spending bills all packaged together for a single up-or-down vote. It included $858 billion in defense spending, $772.5 billion in non-defense discretionary spending, $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, $38 billion in emergency disaster assistance and an assortment of totally unrelated measures.
Congress must pass appropriations (spending) bills to keep the government operating and avoid a shutdown. But nothing in the Constitution requires lawmakers to slam it all together into one swollen bill and force a vote just hours before everybody leaves town for the holidays.
That kind of thing is enabled by the rules of the House and Senate, rules that are adopted by each body and subject to revision.
The rules have been at the center of the fight over who will become the next speaker of the House (still unresolved at the time of this writing), as 20 Republican lawmakers demanded changes to the way the House operates. Simply committing new rules to paper would not be enough. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, one of the holdouts, told Fox News that in the past, rules would sometimes be “waived away magically” to ram spending bills through Congress, evading whatever process of review the rules required.
So the holdouts demanded seats on the committees where such decisions would be made, in order to have the tools to prevent legislative magic tricks. Some said they could not trust former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and would never vote to make him speaker. McCarthy had been expected to cruise into the speaker’s office on a red wave of Republican victories in November, but that didn’t happen, and 20 holdout votes was 15 more than opponents needed to deny him the majority and the prize he sought.
For just a moment, forget about the political parties and the personalities. Think about how much you pay in taxes, how much the government spends and what the government spends it on. What mechanism exists to oversee all that taxing and spending? Who’s in charge of preventing the federal government from recklessly spending money we don’t have, unleashing high inflation and burdening future generations with debt payments?
As we have seen, nobody.
In 2012, the national debt was an eye-popping $16 trillion. Guess what it is now.
It’s $32 trillion.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, so what. We never have to pay it off. All we have to do is pay the interest.”
Guess how much that costs.
In July (before the December mega-spending omnibus bill), an organization called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculated that the federal government will spend $400 billion on interest payments in fiscal year 2022. Interest payments currently soak up more than 8% of all federal tax revenues. The federal government pays more for interest on the debt than for Social Security Disability Insurance, food and nutrition services, transportation or housing.
As interest rates rise, it costs us even more. According to the CRFB’s calculations, every one percentage point hike in interest rates increases this year’s interest spending by $38 billion.
The higher the debt goes, the more our future gets chewed up by the obligation to make interest payments. The CRFB estimates that by fiscal year 2032, interest costs will be $1.2 trillion per year, “projected to be larger than federal spending on Medicaid ($789 billion) and defense ($998 billion).”
This deficit spending means each generation of Americans is forced to pay for what is long gone as well as for current needs. So when you see Congress spending billions and trillions of borrowed money, you are seeing into the future — a future in which everybody’s grown-up kids will have less money to pay their own bills, because more money will be deducted from their paychecks to cover years and years of reckless spending and political giveaways.
Twenty House Republicans are not OK with this. In fact, there are probably far more than 20 House Republicans who are not OK with it.
Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, who voted for Kevin McCarthy for speaker in the first two rounds of voting and then voted “present” in subsequent rounds, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “there are some legitimate concerns we still have, such as how the appropriations process works, how the funding goes, how the floor functions, how the Rules committee functions.”
Tapper said the McCarthy team claimed they had already made many concessions to the “rebels.” He asked Spartz if “they haven’t done it sufficiently and need to give on more.”
“It’s not about giving more, but there are some major issues that were not addressed, including, as I said, the appropriations process and spending,” Spartz responded, “and the amendment process, what members can do on the floor. These are legitimate concerns that a lot of people have. The American people really have problems, that we have uncontrolled spending and we can do nothing about it. And I think that needs to stop.”
So that’s the core of the dispute over the election of the speaker of the House. It’s about whether the elected representatives of the American people will have the ability to do the job they were elected to do, or whether the paychecks of future generations will be raided by a handful of people who make deals in back rooms and then ram spending bills through Congress without debate or amendments.
If there’s still no speaker of the House by the time you read this, have patience. Some wars just have to be fought.
Write Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley