The passage of the debt-ceiling bill, the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), marked a rare moment of bipartisan compromise among Republicans and Democrats, with 78% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans voting yes.
Yet a breakdown of the House vote by my colleague and demographer Neil Howe suggests that these moments may become even more rare. Among Republicans, the vote was clearly split by age and tenure in office. Younger and less-experienced members were much more likely to vote against the bill. Of the Republican members over age 70, only 19% voted no. This increased to 31% among those age 50 to 70 and to 40% among members under 50.
Similarly, just 17% of Republicans who have served five or more terms (i.e., entered office before 2016) voted no. This jumped to 41% among those who were elected more recently. Democrats, on the other hand, showed no such split.
The striking age divide among younger and older Republican members may explain why there was less correlation (than among Democrats) between their level of electoral support and how they voted. Traditional political wisdom dictates that members of Congress who live in competitive districts are more willing to compromise out of fear of losing moderates. This held true among Democrats: Among those who won their 2022 races by less than 10 percentage points, only 6% voted no. This soared by 5x or more among those who won their races by 30 points or more. But among Republicans, the differential was much smaller (only 2x).
The gap is even more obvious when analyzing the debt-ceiling votes according to the 2020 presidential election results. In districts where former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden won with at least 60% in 2020, similar shares of Republicans and Democrats voted no. But in districts in which neither candidate reached 60%, 28% of Republicans voted no vs. only 7% of Democrats.
Although House Democrats’ votes largely didn’t reflect these patterns, they did line up in one respect. The youngest Democrats (that is, millennials) were as willing to buck their own elder party leaders as the youngest Republicans were to vote against the bill. Among the House Democrats under age 40, 26% voted no.
This pattern doesn’t necessarily predict a worsening partisan gridlock as trends show that some members will become more willing to strike deals the longer they serve in office. Nonetheless, there’s concern on both sides of the aisle that, with Election Day 2024 around the corner and the political temperature climbing every week, finding compromise may be tougher than ever before.
Dynamics of the Debt Deal
Now that the debt ceiling is suspended until after the 2024 elections, Congress and the Biden administration have agreed on discretionary spending limits, including defense spending, that will impact the federal budget. Washington will be adjusting to fiscal austerity for the foreseeable future, reversing the past four years of the pandemic paydays. In the following, we distill the major components of what passed so we can better understand the budgetary dynamics at play for the next two years:
Fiscal Responsibility Act Highlights:
- Debt limit: The debt limit is suspended until January 1, 2025.
- Sets discretionary spending caps for 2024 and 2025: For 2024, the defense limit is $886.3 billion and non-defense limit is $703.7 billion. Spending limits grow by 1% in 2025 to $895.2 billion for defense and $710.7 billion for nondefense. (In prior years, defense and non-defense spending typically reached parity.)
- The auto-continuing resolution (CR): If all 12 appropriations bills aren’t enacted by January 1 of the following year (2024), discretionary spending will temporarily operate at a maximum of 99% of current levels, a provision drafted by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY).
- COVID rescissions: Approximately $28 billion in unobligated COVID-19 funds were rescinded.
- Internal Revenue Service agents: The bill rescinds $1.4 billion in funding to hire new IRS agents.
- Student-loan repayment pause will end: The Biden administration is barred from extending COVID-era student-loan repayment rules.
- Reforms elements of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs: The deal includes new work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.
- Permitting reforms: The quest for energy-permitting reform continues as this deal includes the BUILDER Act, which reforms the National Environmental Policy Act. The new act includes project thresholds, interagency coordination, limits impact study length, refines review deadlines to prevent project delay, limits what qualifies as a major federal action, and imposes limits to prevent agencies from missing statutory deadlines. We anticipate continued work on these measures over the summer.
The Congressional Impasse
The Republican House and Democratic Senate will continue to move legislation in their respective bodies throughout the summer, but the bills they pass will largely remain incongruous and likely won’t become law. Frustration is mounting for both sides as six months of messaging bills appealing to base voters is not a winning governing strategy. Having said that, prepare for additional skirmishes over the FBI, Department of Justice, IRS, and immigration/the border.