From the front lines of a $1.8 trillion national budget deal

Steve Ellis, VP of Taxpayers for Common Sense, talks about his work on the budget deal - the good, the bad, and the ridiculous

From the front lines of a $1.8 trillion national budget deal

What is the mission of the organization?
Taxpayers for Common Sense just celebrated our 20th anniversary this year. We are a national, non-partisan budget watchdog that advocates for a responsible government that operates within its means. We are aggressively non-partisan, persistently inconvenient, and fervently believe that no matter where you may fall on the political spectrum, no one wants to see their tax dollars wasted.

In a novel approach for Washington, we actually read the bills and understand the policy.

Can you talk about the omnibus? How did the President and Congress agree on this?
With a Republican Congress and a Democrat in the White House, there wasn’t a lot of agreement on how much and where the money should be spent. But they did agree that they hated the budget caps outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011. So they increased spending levels in October’s Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015.

They certainly haggled over where some of the funds were going and over policy riders. When Congress is controlled by one party and the White House the other, you often see policy riders, policy provisions normally allowed in spending bills that otherwise limit the executive branch’s ability to conduct their business.  There were big fights over those and other extraneous issues, like the crude oil export ban, which eventually got lifted.

Were there any firsts in this budget deal that you found shocking?
There is a caboose of tax provisions that only get renewed for a year or two and a year or two again. They’re called "tax extenders" and this is done because it takes a lot of money to offset the loss of revenue if they were enacted permanently.

For the first time that I have seen, the extenders and the omnibus became entwined. Trade-offs to provisions in one bill could be used to get a win in the other. So there were a lot of moving parts. And it is pretty brazen to go from temporarily extending a tax provision without an offset because it would cost too much to make it permanent to deciding "to hell with it" and agreeing to more than $600 billion in tax provisions with no offsets.

Anytime there is a deal of this magnitude under way, there are a lot of rumors swirling.  "Is this in, is this out? What is unacceptable? What has to be in there?"

 You also had the fact that there was still a sizable portion of the Republican conference that wouldn’t vote for the omnibus, so they needed Democrats. That gave Democrats leverage to get some riders out and some tax policy provisions in. This deal almost collapsed several times and lawmakers were constantly posturing.

What kind of an impact did your organization make on that budget deal? 
Getting the omnibus done and not having a government shutdown or a long-term continuing resolution that just funds government at last year’s levels is a win of sorts.

We eliminated a decades old relic program where we shipped coal from Pennsylvania to Germany to heat our bases there.

We also got rid of provisions that would have prevented the government from demanding that federally funded projects be built higher and out of most flood risk.

We stopped a budget gimmick that would have tried to make the replacement of the Ohio-class submarine move out of the Navy’s budget and into the Secretary of Defense’s budget.

That wouldn’t have saved any money and the argument that the sub would be a national asset and not a Navy one was ridiculous. Every tank, every plane the nation buys is a national asset. We will have to see how the bill gets implemented and where the cash goes.

Some things are a win and a loss.

The bill busts the budget caps, but not by as much as was originally sought.

A big loss was not offsetting or even really evaluating all the tax breaks that were made permanent. We still have a more than $400 billion deficit, and we are more than $18 trillion in debt.

This revenue loss will go right to the nation’s budgetary waistline. But it also may make comprehensive tax reform more likely because you have billions of dollars of additional tax breaks lawmakers can give up to drive down rates. We’ll see. That’s on the to-do list for the next president.

Can you describe the impact public affairs firms or lobbyists have on a budget deal and had on this one?
All lobbyists are not created alike. Some are able to get very targeted benefits, particularly in tax provisions enacted. Others are running into headwinds. At the end of the day it’s not just the PR strategies and lobbyist connections that get it done. It’s the juice of their lawmaker advocates. If they’re not in leadership or positions of power on either the Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Finance Committees they’re not in the room.

That doesn’t mean that the outside work isn’t important. I’m a lobbyist, I speak to the media. But someone has to carry the water.

How about the media?
The media has a tough job. Things are constantly changing and you don’t know if a lawmaker or an advocate is playing you or is being straight up. This type of legislation is like fish, it starts to smell after a few days.

And it often cannot stand up to scrutiny. So it’s key for the policymakers to keep it under wraps until the last moment and then jam it through in a couple days. It is rare for legislation as big as this to pass through the Senate like a hot knife through butter. But there it was, just hours after the House voted, the bill that was only released in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, sliding through the Senate chamber. We’re going to be reading about special interest baubles that were stuck in here for weeks, if not months after it was enacted.

What have been the most challenging issues you've been involved with this year?
There have been a lot. The year started with the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program being renewed for several years, largely unchanged. That was a missed opportunity to shift more of the risk off Uncle Sam and onto the private sector.

You also had the fight to preserve or at least responsibly alter the budget caps. That was a year-long battle that was, as I mentioned, a mixed bag.

We were involved in a lot of energy issues, from loan guarantees to getting a fair return on coal and gas removed from federal lands.

Fighting against wasteful weapon systems like the F-35 that is going to cost the country at least $1 trillion over its 40-year lifetime. There are responsible alternatives. More F-15, F-16, F/A-18s, and some other aircraft to bridge the gap between now and a shift toward unmanned aerial vehicles.

What's next for TCS?
We’re going to continue our fight for responsible budgeting, comprehensive tax reform, and eliminating waste at the Pentagon and elsewhere.

We have been working to develop a more thoughtful and efficient disaster assistance program that puts more emphasis on mitigation and prevention to reduce disaster costs. Put more responsibility on states and localities to manage risk and prepare so it is less costly after the fact.

We want every disaster relief dollar to "pre-spond" to the inevitable next disaster to make people and property less vulnerable and ensure that another dollar doesn’t have to be spent in the same way again.

We’ll be working on energy programs to get taxpayer return on investment and reform the nation’s bloated farm programs, particularly crop insurance.  


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