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Obama and House Republicans trade empty budget gestures

February 06, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to the media during his weekly news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to the media during… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

It's only Wednesday, yet this week is already proving to be a big one for meaningless political gestures.

Echoing Sunday's comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to put off -- again -- the start of the "sequester," a series of across-the-board spending cuts that would save $1.2 billion over 10 years. They had been scheduled to kick in on Jan. 1 but were pushed back to March 1 in a compromise reached last month. Obama argued that lawmakers should take a "balanced approach" that combines tax increases, spending cuts and reforms to entitlement programs, rather than cutting discretionary spending so deeply and heedlessly that it could damage the economy.

If that sounds familiar, it's because Obama has been saying the same thing for two years. Administration officials had proposed the sequester in 2011 as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling to hold a sword over lawmakers' heads, pressuring them to accept the "grand bargain" on taxes and spending the president was pursuing. Lawmakers have repeatedly failed to reach such a deal, however, settling for narrow and short-term solutions to budget problems as they have arisen.

Given how little time remains between now and March 1, Obama suggested that Congress enact a small package of cuts and tax hikes -- mainly by eliminating some deductions for corporations and wealthy individuals -- in lieu of starting the sequester. "There is no reason that the jobs of thousands of Americans who work in national security or education or clean energy, not to mention the growth of the entire economy, should be put in jeopardy just because folks in Washington couldn’t come together to eliminate a few special-interest tax loopholes or government programs that we agree need some reform," he said.

The president's speech is likely to have zero effect on Capitol Hill. Having agreed to let tax rates rise on high-income Americans, Republicans believe they've done enough on the revenue side of the equation. Their focus now is on finding a way to force Democrats to accept cuts in entitlement programs, which are the main driver in Washington's long-term budget problems.

So, what did House Republicans do Wednesday? They rammed through a bill (HR 444) that would require Obama to submit a budget proposal by April 1 that would eliminate the deficit within 10 years -- something Republicans have yet to do with any of their deficit-slashing budget resolutions.

That's not leadership; that's an exercise in finger-pointing. As I noted in my last post, the federal purse strings are held by Congress, not the White House. If GOP lawmakers want to balance the budget within a decade, they don't need the president to show them how to do it. They can lay out their own proposals and try to get them enacted.

To date, they've done nothing more than pass nonbinding budget resolutions that fall far short of that target. They can't blame Obama for that; because of the rules Republicans imposed on the House, Democrats can't block them from pushing anything through the chamber. They've used that power to pass a slew of bills to cut environmental regulations and other federal rules they say are hurting U.S. employers. But they haven't taken any such steps to try to slow the growth of Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.

Some House GOP leaders, such as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), have said there's little point in tackling entitlements if the president isn't on board. But leadership means moving the debate forward regardless of the political cost, not waiting for someone from the other party to provide cover.

Right after the House approved HR 444, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out press releases blasting Democrats in swing districts, such as Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park), for "voting against a plan to balance the budget." The bill, however, was nothing of the sort. In fact, most House Republicans, and most Democrats, joined in voting against an amendment that would have endorsed an actual plan to bring the deficit under control: the one proposed in 2010 by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the White House's deficit commission. 

For the record, Brownley voted in favor of that amendment. But supporting Bowles-Simpson is a substantive move, and this week is just about posturing.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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