The House Republicans’ ‘Jedi Council’ seeks a way to balance the federal budget — but the path they’ll take is unclear at best

August 28, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 28, 2013

Last week, Jonathan Strong, a National Review Online political reporter, published a feature on the so-called Jedi Council. This group of Republican members of the House of Representatives formed in 2011 and has been meeting regularly ever since to plot their caucus’ budget strategy. The group currently has five members: Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Tom Price (Georgia), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Steve Scalise (Louisiana).

Ryan, of course, was the Republican nominee for vice president last year and chairs the House Budget Committee. All four of the other council members have led the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus. Hensarling, a lawyer and businessman, led the RSC in 2007-08. The following two years, the committee was led by Price, an orthopedic surgeon. Jordan, a former Ohio state legislator with a law degree and has experience wrestling and coaching in college, took the reins in 2011. Scalise, a former systems engineer and Louisiana state legislator, did so this year.

As Strong tells it, the council concluded after Obama’s re-election that a budget fight in early 2013 would be disastrous for Republicans.

“There was a feeling from the five of them that if they had a debt-limit fight in February, it was inevitable that they were going to lose,” says a prominent conservative with knowledge of their deliberations.

The group formed a plan to “re-sequence” the budget fights to give the GOP more leverage. The idea was to punt on the debt ceiling for a while, let the automatic sequester cuts go into effect, pass the GOP’s budget, and then gear up for a big debt-ceiling brawl in the summer.

On the morning of the last day of the GOP’s January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., the Jedi Council met with Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the House leadership and struck a deal. The agreement, which rank-and-file Republicans reverently describe as the “Williamsburg Accord,” began with re-sequencing: In exchange for allowing a short-term debt-ceiling increase, House Republicans would make the modest demand that the Senate pass a budget for the first time in four years.

Strong characterizes the accord as an agreement between the council and Boehner’s leadership team as well as between the council and the conservative movement; with some reluctance, officials with Heritage Action for American (the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation) and with the Club for Growth gave their blessing to putting off the debt-limit fight until later this year.

Unfortunately, Strong can do little more than speculate when he turns his attention to the council’s intentions for the upcoming conflict. He raises but then dismisses the possibility of the group staging a leadership coup against Boehner, the speaker of the House. (To be more specific, Strong deems it unlikely that such a coup would come before the 2014 elections.)

Strong penned his article before it was known when the debt-ceiling matter would come to a head — in October, it was revealed late Monday. He does note that a debt-ceiling battle was originally expected to occur by this summer.

He also notes that neither Boehner nor the Jedi Council appear interested in staging a government shutdown in order to defund Obamacare, the health-care reform law. But the conference may take a hard-line stance against raising the debt ceiling unless it receives some concessions from Democrats.

That plan, however, prompts questions about the fine print of the Williamsburg Accord — what, that is, the brawl should be about. A source familiar with the deal recently told me, “The agreement was that it would include cuts or reforms that put us ‘on the path to balance’ in ten years. The bill wouldn’t necessarily have to achieve balance in ten years all by itself.”

What does putting the budget on a “path to balance” mean? “You can drive a truck through that loophole,” says one senior GOP aide.

The true bottom line seems to be that Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Virginia) will decide on a specific strategy in the near future. Whether the famously fractious GOP caucus will fall in line with that decision, of course, remains to be seen.

One thing in Strong’s story that really sent my eyebrows skyrocketing was this passage:

In the view of some conservative groups, the Williamsburg Accord has been a mixed bag, and Ryan in particular is in danger of losing his sheen because of his role, even if few observers realize it. Some prominent conservatives were shocked, for example, to learn that the Ryan budget achieves balance in ten years in part because it assumes that tax revenues will remain at their current level, 19 percent of GDP, which includes the fiscal-cliff and Obamacare tax increases. Officially, this revenue level will be achieved by a reformed tax system with lower rates and the resultant economic growth. But the assumed tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are higher than their historic average, which the outside groups find problematic. Both Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have nonetheless stayed neutral on the proposal, avoiding a fight and giving Ryan more room to maneuver.

When I tried to check Strong’s assertion that “the assumed tax revenues as a percentage of GDP” — remember, that number is 19 percent — “are higher than the historic average,” I soon found a table from the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the left-leaning Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. According to the chart, revenue averaged 17.78 percent of GDP from 1944 through last year.

It’d probably be glib to dismiss the difference between that historical average percentage and the assumed percentage as small. But let’s acknowledge that the margin, less than 1.3 percentage points, is not huge.

Let’s also acknowledge something that Strong completely overlooks in his article. Earlier this month, House leadership pulled the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill from the legislative pipeline. The ostensible justification for that was scheduling considerations. But most observers agreed that the real reason was that the bill didn’t have enough support — both because a number of Tea Party Republicans felt the bill didn’t cut enough money from the budget and because more mainstream Republicans felt the bill cut too much.

Significantly, that appropriations bill represented one of the first concrete steps by the Republican caucus to put Ryan’s budget plan into effect. (It was also one of the first concrete attempts to pass a budget consistent with sequestration funding levels.)

Similarly, an earlier attempt to implement Ryan budget principles resulted in something of a fiasco: The House of Representatives broke with decades of practice by passing a farm bill that failed to include any funding for food stamps. (The program is widely known as food stamps despite now technically being designated SNAP, which stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program.) Food stamps were divided from agriculture for reasons similar to the ones that caused THUD appropriations to be pulled: Some Republicans on the one hand felt that the proposed cuts to the nutrition program weren’t deep enough, while many Democrats on the other hand said they were too deep.

In other words, it’s simply not clear whether Ryan’s vision for balancing the budget has enough real-world support to translate into appropriations bills. And remember: Not only are Democrats likely to oppose the deep cuts Ryan’s budget proposal represents, but some Republicans are poised to criticize it for having revenue levels they consider too high.

When you get down to it, Ryan, Scalise and the other council members may need to use a Jedi mind trick or two in order to find their way out of the impasse that appears to be on the horizon. It’ll be interesting — very, very interesting — to see what happens this fall.

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