In a major victory for Democrats, the U.S. House of Representatives on April 1 passed by 399-22 a motion offered by Rep. John Spratt to instruct conferees on the budget resolution. After first arguing against the motion, Republicans decided they could not defeat it and chose to join Democrats in voting for it. The motion repudiated key provisions of the House Republican budget, instructing conferees to reject $215 billion in Republican cuts to services, to set $396 billion aside to extend the solvency of Social Security, and to pay for these provisions by reducing the oversized tax cuts contained in the House Republican resolution by nearly half ($611 billion).
Provisions of Democratic Motion
The motion calls on conferees to:
Restore harmful cuts — Paragraph (1) of the motion instructs conferees "to eliminate the reconciliation instruction" to six committees — Agriculture, Education and the Workforce, Energy and Commerce, Transportation and Infrastructure, Veterans Affairs, and Ways and Means — slated for cuts under Section 210(b) of the House resolution. The original resolution instructed these committees to change current law to reduce the mandatory spending within their jurisdictions by specified dollar amounts. The Democratic motion instructs conferees to eliminate these reconciliation instructions and thus eliminate the cuts, which total $215 billion over ten years for the six committees. The services under these committees’ jurisdictions — that would be expected to bear the brunt of these cuts — include Medicaid, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, student loans, school lunches, food stamps, farm bill programs, railroad pensions, and safety net programs.
Create a reserve fund to strengthen Social Security — Paragraph (2) instructs the conferees to accept Section 319 (entitled "Reserve Fund to Strengthen Social Security") of the Senate-passed budget resolution. This reserve fund sets aside $396 billion over ten years to be available to fund legislation extending the solvency of Social Security.
Pay for both provisions by reducing the size of the tax cuts — Paragraph (3) instructs conferees to offset the cost of the provisions in paragraphs (1) and (2) by adjusting revenue levels, so that the deficit would not be increased in any year. Given that the cost of the first provision is $215 billion and the cost of the second provision is $396 billion, the conferees are thus instructed to reduce the size of the tax cut by at least $611 billion.
Inaccurate Republican Claims About the Motion
Mistaken Claim About Taxes — Republicans claim that the motion "will establish a $1.2 trillion tax cut." (Press release, Office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, April 1, 2003.) This mistaken claim relies on inaccurate math and an inaccurate understanding of what a motion to instruct does.
First, the inaccurate math: Republicans start with their $1.35 trillion tax cut, round it up to $1.4 trillion, and then subtract the $215 billion needed to restore the spending cuts specified in paragraph (1) — leaving them with a subtotal of $1.2 trillion. But they fail to include the cost of the Social Security reserve fund clearly specified in paragraph (2) — another $396 billion. Thus Republicans actually voted in favor of reducing their $1.35 trillion tax package by at least $611 billion — nearly cutting it in half.
Second, the mistaken of idea of what a motion to instruct does: by instructing conferees to reduce the Republican tax cut by $611 billion, the motion specifically repudiates that portion of the tax cut. But it does not in any way endorse the remainder of the tax cuts. To the contrary, Democrats put forward a budget that rejected all of the Republican tax cuts in favor of the smaller, more effective tax cuts included in the Democratic stimulus package.
While Republican party leaders used these inaccuracies to justify their votes in favor of the motion, the Republican House Member with the greatest stake in the actual tax-cut implications of the motion — Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas — voted against his leadership and against the motion.
Mistaken Claim About Spending Levels — Republicans inaccurately claim that "the Democrat motion to instruct uses last years [sic] numbers, thereby leaving in place a spending freeze at FY 03 levels." (Press release, Office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, April 1, 2003.) But the motion did no such thing. The motion simply rejects the Republican reconciliation instructions to reduce spending on mandatory programs below the levels specified in current law. Eliminating the reconciliation instruction does not endorse a freeze at the FY 03 level, but rather restores these programs to their current rate of growth under current law. Expenditures for most mandatory programs rise over time to cover rising costs of services and changes in the beneficiary population.