Politics

He’s got the most thankless job in Congress — writing a GOP budget

A congressional budget chief’s job often looks thankless: Toil to unite your party around a detailed fiscal plan — and then watch your opponents use it to attack your agenda.

But this year, House Budget Chair Jodey Arrington‘s (R-Texas) experience may have set a new low for the futility of the role.

The chatty Bush administration alum from West Texas is learning how difficult it is to lead the budget panel when intra-party politics disrupt the mission of fiscal hawks, even with backup from allies like Majority Leader Steve Scalise and the 25-member Texas Republican delegation. Arrington found both his reputation and his budget-writing aspirations undercut, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy asserted control over the House GOP conference’s initial proposal in debt-limit talks.

After throwing cold water on Arrington’s plans to move a budget, McCarthy reached out with a peace offering and consolation prize, making him chief sponsor of the 320-page fiscal measure House Republicans will push to pass this week. When the speaker called about that gesture, Arrington said in a recent interview, he did not address the private drama that escalated over the past several weeks as McCarthy spurned Arrington’s eagerness to vote on a budget and relied increasingly on his own posse of advisers.

That leaves Arrington in a touchy spot. He’s still publicly committed to drafting a budget that could lay out the GOP’s fiscal aspirations for the next decade — even as McCarthy forges ahead with his own separate plan. The chair is still meeting with his committee about advancing his budget.

“These budget resolutions are not easy,” Arrington acknowledged in an interview. “They’re complicated by the fact that you have a diverse group of members, it touches virtually every policy in every program in the federal government, and we are so deep in the debt hole.”

While Arrington wouldn’t commit to a future markup of a House GOP budget, he stressed that “we are making very good headway.” But even if he can finish writing one, a budget would promptly saddle Republicans with political liabilities galore: Including internal fights over taxes, entitlements and the desire among some conservatives to pare back Pentagon spending.

Knowing those drawbacks, President Joe Biden has spent months calling on House Republicans to release a budget as a marker in the debt talks. McCarthy has sidestepped that gambit by rallying his members instead around the package of spending cuts, deregulatory moves and a short-term debt hike that is slated for a floor vote this week.

All of that makes Arrington’s entire effort now appear fruitless, with GOP appropriators preparing to write annual spending bills based on the funding totals outlined in the McCarthy-driven package.

Still, a number of Republicans say they want to adopt a budget, even if it amounts to more of a pure party messaging exercise than in years past. Arrington said friends in the conference have flooded him with calls and texts of support amid rumors of conflict with McCarthy.

The 51-year-old chair is hardly the first budget chair who’s seen tension with House leaders. The role is often seen as undesirable, rendered feckless by an eroded federal budget process but still serving as a mouthpiece for the majority party’s fiscal goals.

Four years ago, then-Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) faced a similar quandary as Democratic Budget Committee chair. Leaders of Yarmuth’s party in 2019 wanted to lay down an opening bid as they faced off with the Trump administration over the debt limit and budget caps. After weeks of painstaking work and a nail biter of a committee vote, Democrats were forced to yank the budget from the floor amid a revolt from progressives and moderates.

“That’s the position I found myself in,” Yarmuth said in a phone interview. Arrington, he observed, is “just going to have to sit there and take the abuse.”

Yarmuth said he recommended Arrington for the Budget gavel before retiring last year “because he’s basically a reasonable person and someone I never had a problem talking to or working with.” Lately, the Kentucky Democrat sees Arrington’s predicament as even tougher than his own previous dilemma.

“He has a double-edged problem,” Yarmuth said. “One is that leadership is trying to herd more cats than we ever had to herd, and he’s got mandates to [enact] things that would be highly unpopular and can never get done.”

Arrington didn’t dispute that passing a budget would force his colleagues to make painful, potentially unpopular choices to back up their goal of massively paring back federal spending.

“These are not easy decisions. So most people, they avoid them,” the 51-year-old said in last week’s interview.

He sent confusing signals earlier this year — first promising to release a budget in April and then May, only to later walk back any definitive timeline. Arrington also told reporters that Republicans were preparing a “deal sheet” outlining the party’s debt limit demands, prompting confusion when McCarthy later said he had no knowledge of any such thing.

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, a former GOP budget chief and top Republican appropriator, said he has spoken to Arrington about how to navigate the “gymnastics” of writing a budget, keeping leadership happy and shepherding Republicans’ debt limit offer.

“He has advocated for some things and put some talking points out that may have ruffled a few feathers — I don’t know, that’s between Jodey and the leadership team,” Womack said. “You’re the budget chair. You need to lead your committee to do its mandated duty.”

Arrington vowed that he has “the confidence and trust of the members” in doing that job. Yet it’s undeniable that the budget chair can most effectively wield power when one party holds both chambers of Congress, thereby putting the party-line maneuver known as reconciliation into play.

Democrats used that filibuster end-around during the last Congress to pass last year’s health, climate and tax bill without a single GOP vote, in addition to Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan. Republicans tapped the process in 2017 to pass a massive tax overhaul.

But under divided government, Arrington’s influence is limited — if still meaningful. He’s a senior lieutenant in McCarthy’s drive to force Democrats into spending concessions in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling.

And the speaker’s recent repair of their relationship underscores how crucial Arrington’s buy-in is to projecting the appearance of harmony among House Republicans, despite internal dissonance amplified by the slim margin of their majority.

Asked about McCarthy’s call to seek his chief sponsorship of the debt bill, Arrington downplayed any fractiousness with McCarthy: “No, no, no, no. Look, he and I are both focused on the mission,” he said. “And the mission is to rein in the spending, reduce our debt, grow our economy, and save this country from a debt crisis.”

“All this other stuff,” he added, “is a distraction.”

The House budget chair spends months crafting a budget that is largely symbolic and then trashed by the opposing party. For Rep. Jodey Arrington, it also included some spats with leadership.  

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