Speaker Johnson, by Offsetting Aid for Israel With Spending Cuts, Can Set a Historic Precedent

Tackling Capitol Hill’s big spenders will require educating the press and the American people about why this is the right principle for solving our problems.

AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Speaker Johnson at the Capitol, October 26, 2023. AP/J. Scott Applewhite

The first big decision of Speaker Johnson’s tenure is bound to be controversial. It will likely involve counting votes in the House while simultaneously taking on the White House and the Senate majority. It will also require educating the press and the American people about why this is the right principle for solving our problems.

Simply put, Mr. Johnson has rejected the Biden administration’s huge bill that would lump five different issues – and $105 billion – into one vote. Furthermore, in the tradition of big-spending Washington (which has led to massive debt and destructive inflation) the money in President Biden’s proposal would simply represent new debt with no way to pay for it.

The big spenders in the Senate have a tradition of going along with the White House and spending whatever it takes. (This includes some Republicans who should know better but have spent their entire careers passing huge spending bills to take care of special interests).

Also, the Senate likes big bills because the complicated rules of the Senate make passing anything difficult and time consuming. So, Senate leadership doesn’t want to break the Biden proposal into five different bills. Each would have to get through the Senate’s legislative minefield, taking time and energy.

I oppose giant bills because they are inherently insider grab bags. When a bill is big enough, no member really knows all the details. It is too easy to take care of lobbyists and special interests in a giant bill.

Mr. Johnson has gone a step further in his break with the traditions of big-spending Washington. He proposed a focused, single-topic bill to aid Israel — and a spending offset so the bill does not increase the federal debt or inflationary pressures of government deficit spending.

This proposal for a spending offset (in this case cutting IRS funding which Republicans have consistently opposed) is revolutionary. If it is made to stick, it could profoundly change Washington’s big spending habits. Those legislators who love spending are horrified by the principle of pay-as-you-go.

Looking forward, the spenders know that while there is a politically palatable offset for $14.5 billion in aid to Israel, finding an offset or a set of offsets for $61 billion in additional aid to Ukraine would be difficult. Since the United States has already sent more than $75 billion to Ukraine, the enthusiasm for finding offsets to an additional $61 billion may be limited. In that case, if the new “Johnson rule” of offsets is enforced by the House, there might be a much more modest aid package.

As a fiscal conservative who helped produce the only four balanced budgets in our lifetime, I have a deep bias in favor of offsets. There are more than enough wasteful or destructive government programs and policies to find huge levels of offsets.

For example, a recent report that federal office buildings are 80 percent vacant on any given day raises the question of how many federal buildings are surplus and could be sold to private developers?

The 18-story Nancy Pelosi federal office building in San Francisco has been declared so unsafe from drugs, vagrancy, and crime in the neighborhood that federal workers were advised to work from home. Given the value of land in San Francisco, selling the Pelosi building would be a nice offset — and a delicious victory for conservatives over the architect of much of the current out of control government.

When the Congressional Budget Office is projecting total federal spending in fiscal year 2023 at $6.2 trillion, there is clearly a lot of money available for offsets. Consider that 1 percent of $6.2 trillion is $62 billion. The Ukraine aid request could be offset by a modest tightening of an extraordinarily large and wasteful government.

Mr. Johnson has chosen a historic principle on which to wage the first fight of his speakership. Since some Republicans will vote against any spending (even with offsets) the new Speaker will have to find some Democrats willing to pass aid to Israel even at the cost of a smaller Internal Revenue Service.

 Then Mr. Johnson will have to patiently and pleasantly endure the effort of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell’s effort, to supposedly educate him about why there should be one giant bill and no offsets. He will then have to calmly force Mr. Biden and his team to accept that the weight of debt (paying interest on the debt and the inflation their spending has created) requires a profound change in direction.

If Mr. Johnson can retain 218 votes, he will eventually win this fight — and establish a historic precedent.

The New York Sun

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