Republican Congress Delivers a Year to Forget

A tumultuous year for the Republican-led Congress has come to an end. If you were a supporter of the GOP establishment’s shallow goal to show the country that it could “govern” by passing bloated spending bills, congratulations. If you’re a special interest, congratulations are probably in order, as well. If, however, you held out hope that the GOP would put up a fight for smaller government, I hope the New Year’s Eve Champagne helps with the disappointment.

Veronique De Rugy1

Let’s get something straight: It wasn’t a tumultuous year for the Republican Congress because of the Democratic opposition. Oh, sure, there was the usual partisan bickering and political point scoring. But that was just gamesmanship, because the Democrats knew all along that they merely had to wait the GOP out. The Republican establishment had long ago telegraphed its intention to sneak through 2015 in order to focus on maintaining control of Congress and adding the White House in 2016.

No, the source of the turmoil was intraparty, and it occurred because a small, stubborn group of more fiscally prudent Republicans refused to quietly acquiesce to the politically expedient motivations of then-House Speaker John Boehner and his allies. Tired of watching the Boehner machine consistently losing battles that it never wanted to fight to begin with, the rebels made life increasingly difficult for the K Street-friendly GOP leadership. That culminated in the collecting of Boehner’s scalp in the fall.

Enter the new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, whose “I don’t want to be speaker, but if I agree to do the job, then I expect the troops to fall in line” approach was reminiscent of Frank Underwood’s feigned reluctance to seek the White House on the popular television series “House of Cards.” The rebels promptly backed down, and the reunited GOP just as promptly got to work on passing a series of horrible bills with critical help from their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

Immediately after Ryan’s ascension to the throne, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a two-year budget framework that scrapped the limit on the federal debt ($18.8 trillion and counting) and busted — for the second time — caps on spending that were put in place only four years ago. Congressional Republicans argued that the spending increases were offset, but that’s only if one takes seriously offsets largely not occurring until 2025.

One shouldn’t.

After that, transportation lobbyists scored a long-sought-after victory with the passage of a five-year transportation bill that sets the stage for higher levels of federal spending and perhaps tax increases in the future. Perhaps most insultingly, the transportation bill reauthorized the notoriously crony Export-Import Bank of the United States, which had expired in the summer thanks to a popular revolt against corporate welfare. Sadly, the undue influence of the large corporations that benefited from the bank’s subsidies and their K Street allies ultimately could not be overcome.

There was also passage of the absurdly named Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the lamentable and equally absurdly named No Child Left Behind Act. Those wishing to see every student succeed should be advocating the complete extraction of federal involvement in education. Instead, Republicans teamed with Democrats to keep the federal government’s tentacles firmly entrenched in the classroom.

The spending spree concluded with a 2,000-plus-page omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2016, which will cost $1.1 trillion, and a $680 billion bill renewing tax breaks that were set to expire. The combined package was a massive Christmas gift from Congress to the throngs of lobbyists who made sure that Beltway Santa fulfilled their wish lists. What about the needs of taxpayers? Congress, bless its generous heart, gave the IRS an extra $290 million to help the government’s revenue collectors provide better service.

Happy 2016!

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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