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Congress shows just how optional a budget can be

June 03, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • 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.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee,… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

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.

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. 

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