Groups Worry Omnibus, ACA Vote Show Less Deficit Concern

By Jonathan Nicholson

Deficit-hawk groups say this week’s legislation to fund the government and repeal the Affordable Care Act show how far fiscal issues have fallen off the political radar.

While the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have often bemoaned the government’s nearly $20 trillion in accumulated debt, budget gimmicks in the omnibus spending bill (H.R. 244) and the decision by House Republicans to vote on the ACA repeal bill (H.R. 1628) without an up-to-date Congressional Budget Office score left deficit-fighters worried fiscal restraints were quickly eroding.

The decision to hold a vote—which Republicans won narrowly, 217-213—on the ACA repeal bill without an updated CBO assessment of the bill’s impact on the budget or insurance coverage was seen as more discouraging than the omnibus bill, which cleared the Senate and now heads to Trump’s desk.

Umpires Lacking

“It’s kind of like they took away the umpires,” Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, told Bloomberg BNA on May 4. “It’s like they said, ‘Let’s play the game without the umpires.’”

Added Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget: “I think the general trend of starting to ignore CBO could become dangerous, if left unchecked. It does feel like it’s escalating.”

The ACA repeal bill, which still must get through the Senate and be signed by Trump to become law, was scored twice by the CBO in earlier iterations. The last score was issued March 23 but several changes have been made since then, particularly regarding insurance coverage of people with pre-existing conditions.

Several Republicans leaving a party meeting May 4 said the bill had not changed so much that the March 23 score no longer applied. The CRFB’s Goldwein disputed that, though, saying the changes were substantial and merited waiting for an updated score before taking a vote.

“They made what could be pretty substantial changes,” he said. “This is a huge break with precedent.”

Precedent for Taxes

With an overhaul of the federal tax system on the horizon as Republicans’ next big legislative priority, both Bixby and Goldwein said they worried a similar approach may be taken there.

“I sure hope they don’t ignore CBO or the (Joint Committee on Taxation) for tax reform,” Goldwein said.

“That will be the real test,” Bixby said.

The omnibus bill also came in for criticism. A CRFB analysis estimated there was about $40 billion of what the group termed “gimmicks” in the bill, including about $14 billion in overseas military funding above what was requested by President Donald Trump, $19 billion in changes in mandatory spending programs that don’t count against the discretionary spending caps and $4 billion in unneeded emergency spending.

The overseas funding was largely seen as a way to get around adhering to the defense and non-defense funding caps agreed to by then-President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans in the 2011 Budget Control Act. But that tactic has been used before and both Goldwein and Bixby said it was not surprising.

“It’s a conventional gimmick,” Bixby said.

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