It’s difficult to imagine that the U.S. Government has more money than it has figured out how to spend, but President Trump wants to give back $15.4 billion of such money and Congress is unhappy about it. This money is in appropriated, but unspent, funding from earlier years.
Some Republican congressmen concede they’re in terror of Democratic spendthrifts if they try to indulge in “rescission,” as a giveback is called. “I worry about the messaging the Democrats will be able to do about it,” says Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. “Those [campaign] ads write themselves.
The money the president wants to give back is fairly minuscule. In a budget of $4 trillion, $15.4 billion barely qualifies as a rounding number. This is only about 0.385 of 1 percent of the budget. By free-spending congressional standards, that’s not even pocket change. It’s more like pocket lint. This raises the obvious question: If not this 0.385 of 1 percent, where does any reduction come from? But as the late Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a Republican majority leader, once said, “a billion dollars here, and a billion dollars there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
The $15.4 billion at hand includes $6.8 billion in funding from prior years for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which even not-so-clever demagogues could make sound like something evil, like closing the orphanage and putting crippled children on the street to sell matches for their supper. But Marc Short, the White House legislative director, says the money in question is actually in “expired accounts, and not available anymore.”
Yes, but. “It’s going to require a varsity-level effort to explain that it’s not a cut, you had money left over and all that,” Rep. Mark Amodei, Nevada Republican, tells The Washington Post. “So, on the facts, I may find my way to doing that.” But he thinks the White House should pick a better symbol for cost-cutting. Rep. Tom Mac- Arthur of New Jersey, another fretful Republican, is pained that there’s $107 million for disaster-relief from Hurricane Sandy in that $15.4 billion.
Packaging the federal budget can seem more like art than science, and it’s not clear to plain folk why appropriated dollars are allowed to languish unspent, gathering moss and mold, before it occurs to someone that the money ought to be returned to the Treasury. Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, cites the Congressional Budget Office as emphasizing that the rescission, if it happens, “will not have any impact” on the children covered under the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Mr. Mulvaney says the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate had as recently as April expressed support for rescinding the $6.8 billion in that program as “good government” accounting.
But the midterm congressional elections are closer now, with control of the House at stake. “Good government” must defer to “good politics.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the ranking Democratic member of the House Budget Committee, says he doesn’t understand “the political calculation” in Mr. Trump’s attempt to give the unspent money back. “If it’s a matter of principle, I respect them for taking principled stances. But those are things we’d love to run against — and will.”
As a mantra, “Trump supports it, therefore we’re against it,” no doubt makes Democrats and certain Republicans feel good about themselves, but leaving unspent — and unspendable — money on the books is no way to manage the federal budget. It makes sense only to accountants who put out their shingle in the swamp.
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