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Congress shows just how optional a budget can be

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, speaks about the budget at the 2013 Fiscal Summit in Washington on May 7.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

During the last three years of President Obama’s first term, Republicans (and a fair number of readers here) blasted congressional Democrats repeatedly for failing to pass a federal budget -- even in 2010, when they still held the majority in both chambers.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot. The GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have passed competing versions of a budget resolution for fiscal 2014, marking the first time a budget resolution has even made it to the Senate floor since 2009. But the two sides have yet to start a conference, and House Democrats such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are hectoring Republicans for refusing to appoint conferees.

Even the administration got into the act Monday, saying it didn’t want the House to move ahead on its proposed appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year until the two chambers had agreed on a budget resolution that set overall spending levels. “More than a month has passed since the deadline for action and the Congress has yet to appoint conferees and agree on a budget resolution,” the Office of Management and Budget complained, conveniently ignoring the fact that Obama’s own budget proposal arrived on Capitol Hill two months late.

So, are Republicans and their supporters being hypocrites here? Hardly. The same goes for Democrats and the White House. They’re all just opportunistic critics, trying to make the other side look bad for taking the most politically expedient route to the destination everyone knows they’re going to reach eventually.

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Ideally, that destination will be a bipartisan “grand bargain” on spending and taxes that brings the national debt under control. More likely, though, it’s going to be a compromise on spending that keeps the lights on in Washington and puts off any major deals on taxes and entitlements until after the next election. Lawmakers could go either way without coming to an agreement on a budget resolution.

Don’t get me wrong -- the annual budget resolution can be a useful document, even though it doesn’t have the force of law. On the big-picture level, it’s a statement of priorities and direction. And on the micro level, it sets limits on the various categories of discretionary spending that Congress cannot breach without a supermajority vote. It can also force Congress to make changes in taxes and mandatory spending programs by imposing “reconciliation instructions” on the relevant committees.

The budget process has a major shortcoming, though. If lawmakers fail to agree on a resolution, they face no penalty. In other words, nothing forces the House and Senate to compromise if their views on the budget diverge. No agencies shut down, no interest payments are defaulted on, no one is furloughed.

So at times like the present, when Democrats are demanding tax increases that the GOP can’t abide and Republicans are insisting on deep cuts to entitlements that Democrats reject, there’s little reason to expect Congress to produce a budget resolution. The fact that both chambers made the effort to propose one this year suggests that the exercise is more about political statements than governing blueprints.

OK, that’s not entirely fair. The budgets written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), lay out their party’s governing wish list. In Ryan’s case, that includes slashing spending on nonmilitary discretionary and safety-net programs and overhauling the tax code to cut rates and broaden the base. In Murray’s case, it involves raising tax revenue by eliminating some of the tax breaks enjoyed by higher-income Americans and corporations, cutting defense spending and increasing spending on selected programs to boost the economy.

Neither one, however, offers a realistic way forward at a time of divided government.

Ryan and Murray have been meeting privately to try to find a middle ground. He’s said he doesn’t want to go to conference until the outlines of an agreement are in place.

[Update, June 3, 5:30 p.m.: According to a spokesman for the Senate Budget Committee, Eli Zupnick, Murray has said she’s willing to talk to anyone interested in bridging the gap between the two chambers. But she’s also called for conferees to be appointed, and said that any deal between the two chambers should be worked out in conference and not in private talks beforehand.]

Meanwhile, the House GOP leadership has blocked efforts by the Democrats to appoint conferees. With no conferees appointed, the clock hasn’t started ticking yet on the 20-day deadline for conferees to file a report.

Not that the deadline carries much weight. If a conference report isn’t filed within 20 days, that just means House members can offer motions to instruct the conferees to include whatever they want in the budget resolution. Democrats would no doubt propose such things as ending tax breaks on corporate jets and forbidding Medicare from becoming a voucher program. But while the votes may put Republicans in a tough spot, they aren’t binding on the conference committee.

More important, there’s no reason for Ryan and his fellow Republicans to concede an inch to Murray’s side in the negotiations over the budget resolution. They’ll have much more leverage over spending and deficit reduction in just a few months, when the two sides are expected to face off over something much more tangible and consequential: the annual appropriations bills for fiscal 2014, which must pass to keep government agencies open past Sept. 30, and an increase in the debt ceiling, which is likely to be needed around the same time to prevent the government from stiffing some of its creditors.

Republicans may also want to stick to their guns on the budget resolution because passing one will drain their leverage in the debt-ceiling talks. As aggressively as Ryan has proposed to reduce the deficit, the House’s budget resolution still blows through the current debt ceiling by more than $500 billion in the coming year and more than $1 trillion over the next decade. That’s a bargain compared to the Senate’s resolution, which would add more than $900 billion to the debt in its first year and more than $5.7 trillion over the coming decade. Yet it still requires the debt limit to go up, which is a concession that at least some House Republicans haven’t been willing to make.

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The climate change guilt trip

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey


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