Rob Portman, Jim Renacci under fire for their votes on $1.1 trillion spending bill: analysis

Stephen KoffBy Stephen Koff,

Cleveland.com Washington Bureau Chief

December 21, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Critics say they are hypocrites, or at least inconsistent. Their votes show how Washington works — and why people disdain Washington.

But at least conservatives and liberals finally have a point of agreement. The subject: U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Jim Renacci and their opposite votes on the $1.1 trillion spending bill for 2016 that Congress passed Friday. Both are Republicans. Portman represents the entire state of Ohio. Renacci represents a northern Ohio district that includes his home city of Wadsworth, where he once was the mayor and an auto dealer.

Let’s start with Portman. In the days before the vote, he sent no Portman the skunkfewer than 14 press releases touting all the benefits for Ohio that he worked to get in the bill. The benefits included money to make sure the fight against neighborhood blight in cities such as Cleveland, and the cleanup of the Great Lakes, could continue. Portman also helped get federal money to offset Cleveland’s security costs at next summer’s Republican National Convention.

He and Ohio’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown (who voted for the bill), also pushed for financial assurance to keep up the cleanup and decontamination of a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, and to support development and procurement of 81 Stryker vehicles — tank-like military vehicles — with an upgraded weapon system, with some of the work being done in Lima, Ohio. Portman and Brown helped stop threatened cuts to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. They helped get $9.4 million to upgrade the weapons firing range at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

Then Portman voted against the very bill that will do all this and more.

On its face, Portman’s vote seemed to contradict not only his commitment to these projects. It also contradicted his pledge after former talk show host Jon Stewart and a firefighter with cancer confronted him a couple weeks earlier. Once they tracked him down in a Capitol corridor, Portman told them he would support an amendment to make sure 9/11 responders to Ground Zero could keep getting federal health compensation from a program that otherwise would expire.

That provision was put in the spending bill, too.

So why did Portman vote no?

“While I appreciate the hard work by colleagues to put together this massive Omnibus Appropriations bill, I believe the total spending is too much during this time of unacceptably high annual deficits and record debt,” he said in a statement.

Yet Portman cast his vote knowing full well that the bill would pass. After the bill won 313 votes (to 116 votes in opposition) in the House, it got 65 “yes” votes in the 100-member Senate. And so he said today in a telephone interview that despite his intent to vote against it, he did what he could to make sure it would help Ohioans.

“It’s always a close call when you’re against a bad bill but they’ve got some good provisions in there,” Portman told cleveland.com. “That’s what I faced in this bill.”

The 2,000-page bill was presented to senators with little time to read it and no chance to amend it. That’s “no way to govern,” Portman said. He pointed out controversial provisions today that are only now coming to public light, such as help for casino companies thanks to support from Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate’s top Democrat, and a new Coast Guard cutter to be built in Mississippi, thanks to Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. The Coast Guard says it doesn’t need the cutter.

This is how Washington works. It’s also how Washington ticks off the rest of America.

“It is true that I did fight like hell for Ohio, and I’m proud of that,” Portman said. The Piketon provision saved 400 to 500 jobs, he said, and the deal he helped work out for NASA spared a possible $60 million cut to the Cleveland center.

Portman was consistent in at least one regard. To understand, go back to a two-year budget bill Congress passed in late October. (The budget sets guidelines but it takes spending bills, such as the one approved Friday, for the money to get out and for smaller decisions to be made.) The October bill lifted mandatory budget caps imposed in a 2011 congressional deal — and the lifting of those caps is in large part what will make the $1.1 trillion in spending possible.

Portman voted against the October bill, too. But explaining his consistency, after the seeming inconsistency of all his boasting about the goodies for Ohio, is a hard sell politically. “He was against it before he was for it and then he was against it” — that’s not exactly a line a politician relishes. And Portman will face it in 2016.

“For the past week, Senator Portman has sent press release after press release taking credit for parts of this budget bill, and then he voted against it — a clear example of the kind of double-speak and political games that working people in Ohio hate about Washington politicians,” David Bergstein, spokesman for former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the likely Democrat Portman will face in his reelection effort next November, said in his own press release.

On the right, Portman will get points from conservative anti-spending groups that keep score, including Heritage Action and FreedomWorks. The latter group is part of the broad Tea Party coalition, and Portman has a 62 percent lifetime score with FreedomWorks — but only a 47 percent score this year, the group said.

Jason Pye, communications direct for FreedomWorks, told cleveland.com today that Portman “probably knew what the outcome was going to be” before he voted. That’s true, Portman said. The vote count was obvious, although he said he still would have voted no regardless.

But whatever the senator’s motives may have been, “a no vote is the right vote,” Pye said. “It’s hard for us to be upset about a no vote.”

So what about Renacci, who voted yes?

Renacci, a CPA who prides himself on a 28-year business background, talks regularly about the need for fiscal discipline. He told cleveland.com today that the bill not only secured money for priorities in Ohio and boosted spending for the military and veterans. It also made sure that Congress had a say in how taxpayer money gets spent.

Had Congress rejected the bill, the alternative — short of a government shutdown, since authority for government spending was expiring — would have been to pass a measure called a continuing resolution. And a continuing resolution would give leeway for President Barack Obama to make decisions, Renacci said, although that would depend upon how the resolution was structured.

“It would have been spent regardless,” Renacci said of the $1.1 trillion.

Renacci has faced grief from conservative voters since Friday. Some are upset that the spending bill failed to halt federal funding to Planned Parenthood or didn’t do more to advance other Republican policies.

Yet Renacci noted that the broader package — a tax-provision bill paired with the spending bill — suspended several taxes used to fund the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. Republicans will use that to advance their long-term goal of dismantling the act. The bill also keeps the Obama administration from using taxpayer money to bail out insurers who priced their ACA policies too low and were hit with financial losses — another way the GOP hopes to disrupt the law, known as Obamacare.

And the bill made it tough for foreigners to travel to the United States without visa screenings if they have visited Syria, Iraq , Iran or Sudan since 2011.

On Renacci’s Facebook page, Clifford Sauer, a sales manager in North Canton, wrote, “A very large group of these so-called Republicans promised to cut spending and hold our government accountable. This just goes to prove that it is just more of the same BS that has been going on all along.”

Renacci replied, “Clifford….in 2010 the annual deficit was 1.4 trillion. This year it will be less than 400 billion. You can make a lot of claims about Republicans but one claim you’re making is false. We have cut the deficit…. And by almost 60% annually and we have a budget that balances in ten years. Let’s at least be accurate with the claims you are making.”

Renacci’s claim on falling deficits is true; the improving economy and the end of recession-era stimulus-spending programs played big roles. And he rejects that Friday’s vote signals a return to big spending.

But he also makes political assumptions. The Congressional Budget Office projects that trillion-dollar deficits will return by 2025, pushed by mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security. Renacci could turn out to be right if both houses of Congress and the White House agree to Republican budget and entitlement-reform plans.

But that’s a big “if.” Meantime, say critics such as FreedomWorks’ Pye, Renacci is wrong — wrong for assuming that deficits will keep going down, and wrong for his vote on Friday. Added Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action: The GOP plan to balance the budget in 10 years — the much-heralded House Republican budget — was based on an assumption about budget caps and spending.

With the October budget bill, followed by Friday’s approval of $1.1 trillion in spending, that assumption is now busted.

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