More than most of my colleagues on The Times' editorial board, I sympathize with the Republicans in Congress who complain about President Obama's expansive use of executive power. I don't always agree, but I see why they complain when the administration ignores a statutory deadline (as it has done with the employer mandate in Obamacare) or creates new legal obligations out of thin air (as it did in granting waivers to the No Child Left Behind mandates).
So it was inevitable, perhaps, that House Republicans would apply their zeal for creating super-special investigatory oversight panels to this particular issue. And so the House Judiciary Committee did, announcing last week that it has formed a Task Force on Executive Overreach. The task force has until Aug. 3 to wrap up its work, delving into a list of complaints about Executive Branch power and what Congress can do about them.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate Budget Committees were heading down a different path that made it abundantly clear (as if it weren't already) why Obama has done so much by executive fiat. Their chairmen announced that they won't bother to hold the customary hearing on the president's annual budget proposal — a proposal that Congress has required presidents to submit since 1921 — before coming up with its own, nonbinding budget resolution for fiscal 2017.
The message to the administration, in short: We don't want to work with you. But we're still going to cry foul if you don't work with us.
In case it wasn't clear enough, here's what House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said about the decision not to hold a hearing:
"Nothing in the president's prior budgets — none of which have ever balanced — has shown that the Obama Administration has any real interest in actually solving our fiscal challenges or saving critical programs like Medicare and Social Security from insolvency. Rather than spend time on a proposal that, if anything like this Administration's previous budgets, will double down on the same failed policies that have led to the worst economic recovery in modern times, Congress should continue our work on building a budget that balances and that will foster a healthy economy."
Short version: Obama doesn't share our priorities (no, really?), so we're not going to give the administration the chance to talk about his.
Obama's budget proposal comes out Tuesday, so Price and his Senate Budget Committee counterpart, Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), don't know the specifics yet. The White House has put out a preview of its highlights, though, and not surprisingly, all could be characterized as "New Ways to Spend Tax Dollars," as opposed to Price and Enzi's preferred category, "Programs Ripe for Termination."
In one sense, the budget committee chairmen are just being brutally frank about the process. Even when the same party has controlled the White House and Congress, lawmakers haven't paid a whale of a lot of attention to the slew of initiatives presidents have stuffed into their budgets.
But let's break down Price's statement a bit, starting with his complaint about Obama not trying to balance the budget.
It's just his second year as the House Budget Committee chieftan, but neither he nor any of his predecessors since the late 1990s has proposed a budget that's free of red ink. And if you exclude the Social Security Trust Fund, Congress has been running deficits since the Eisenhower administration. While Price proposed a budget last year that laid out a path to balance, he didn't take the steps he could have taken to push Congress down that road — for example, by calling for a budget "reconciliation" bill that would have limited spending on such popular but costly programs as Medicare.
Instead, the only reconciliation bill the latest Congress has considered was a purely political gesture that would have repealed major tenets of Obamacare and blocked federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That required no display of political courage on the GOP's part, unlike a bill to turn Medicare into a voucher program — an idea that's integral to the House GOP's previous multiyear plans to balance the budget. Oh, and by the way, Price's budget last year would have made it harder to save the Social Security Disability Income trust fund from insolvency.
That's not to say Obama's budget proposals have been more fiscally responsible. The president has failed year after year to lay out a path to budgetary sustainability or a solution to the long-term problems posed by Medicare and other federal health programs. That's largely because, unlike Republicans, he hasn't seen federal spending or the deficit as an impediment to growth. On the contrary, he's tried repeatedly to increase spending in the name of getting the economy to grow faster, which in turn would help bring down the federal deficit and rein in the burgeoning national debt.
That's an entirely mainstream view of the economy, albeit one held mainly by Democrats. But thanks to the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, Republicans don't have to compromise with Democrats in order to pass the annual budget resolution. The law gives the minority no procedural leverage — no filibuster, no possibility of a veto (because it's a resolution that doesn't require the president's signature to go into effect).
Adding extra kabuki flavor to this particular bit of political theater, Congress doesn't even need a budget resolution this year. A deal struck last year between congressional leaders and the White House — outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner's parting gift to his colleagues — sets the spending levels for fiscal 2017, as well as deciding how the pot will be divided between defense and non-defense programs.
Price and Enzi will no doubt produce budget resolutions anyway, as required by the 1974 act. The only real question is whether they will stick with the agreed-upon spending levels or reneg on the deal by proposing to spend less, most likely on the domestic programs favored by Democrats.
Doing so would inevitably lead to a fight with a White House later in the year over the annual spending bills, with the GOP majority trying to stick with their lower spending levels and President Obama insisting that last year's deal is still a deal. They've had a fight like that twice now — in 2013 and last year — and Obama has won both times.
But hey, congressional Republicans have tried dozens of times to repeal Obamacare to no avail, so they're nothing if not persistent.