Balance of Power Between Republicans and Democrats
Looking ahead, President Biden and congressional Democrats are fully cognizant that their ambitious agenda will have to be pared back considerably as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. With Republican gains much smaller than expected, Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) was elected speaker of the House after 15 rounds of voting. However, the influence of MAGA Republicans such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) will increase, as they will play prominent roles in House committees.
For their part, the Democrats picked up a one-seat majority in the Senate when Raphael Warnock won the runoff election in Georgia. However, this was partially offset by Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) decision to switch her affiliation from Democrat to independent. The switch is not expected to alter the balance of power in the Senate for two reasons: Sinema previously acted independently when she voted against President Biden’s Build Back Better bill and other Democratic-sponsored legislation; and she does not plan to caucus with the Republicans.
Close Election Results Spurred Agreement on Finalizing Fiscal 2023 Federal BudgetMeanwhile, the close election results have spurred both sides to reach agreement on finalizing the federal budget for fiscal 2023 by passing a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, which totaled 4,155 pages. Previously, there had been talk that Republicans would try to block passage of the budget. However, after failing to take the Senate and regaining the House by only a very narrow margin, Republicans entered the lame duck session with a much weaker hand than they expected. Consequently, they have abandoned plans to threaten shutting down the government or passing a series of short-term budget resolutions in favor of striking a deal.
What is in the New Law?
The main issue that held up the omnibus bill was disagreement between the two parties over domestic funding levels. Republicans claimed that Democrats had attained their objectives through previous bills; Democrats countered that additional social spending was needed to counter the effects of inflation. One area they could agree on was defense spending. Recently, the Senate passed an $858 billion defense spending bill that was $45 billion more than Biden had sought. It also included $45 billion in assistance for Ukraine. An amendment proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would fast track the approval process for permits for energy-related projects failed.
According to the Washington Post, the omnibus bill contains $773 billion for domestic programs, a 5.5 percent increase over 2022. The measure includes a significant increase in funding for veterans, childcare programs, public infrastructure and domestic manufacturing of computer chips. The total is smaller than Democrats had been seeking, but they were willing to compromise because they understand that 2023 will be tougher for them.
Although Senate Republicans were willing to compromise on the 2023 budget, House Republican leaders urged members to block its passage until next year, when they will be in control. Despite their philosophical commitment to smaller government, federal spending has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Since then, $5 trillion have been allocated to provide pandemic relief for individuals and families, businesses, state and local governments and health care entities.
Federal Spending as a Percentage of GDP
During the three preceding years, federal spending averaged about $4.5 trillion. It then surged by 45% in 2020 and has averaged close to $6 trillion in the past three years. This resulted in the ratio of the federal budget deficit to GDP setting a post-war record of 15% in 2020 and 12% in 2021. It has since fallen to about 6% of GDP in 2022, and the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projections see deficits of 4% to 6% over the next 10 years. They are well above the post-war average of 3% and imply a steady increase in public debt outstanding relative to GDP.
As a result, there is less room for the government to pursue counter-cyclical fiscal policies or social programs, should the economy slip into recession.
The initial response to the COVID pandemic was justified when businesses were closed and the economy plummeted, and it is credited for contributing to a robust recovery. However, both parties went overboard extending transfer payments to people and businesses. Several studies have concluded that the extra payments to unemployed workers did not affect labor supply materially. Others see the massive increase in federal spending as contributing to the surge in inflation this year.
With fiscal policy likely to be on hold for the next two years, this leaves the Federal Reserve with the burden of deciding whether to ease monetary policy while inflation is well above its 2% target. In this respect, U.S. policymakers will be much more constrained if there is another unforeseen shock.
A version of this article was posted to TheHill.com on December 23, 2022.
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