|Congress sees no budget rush
By: Jonathan Allen
April 12, 2010 04:16 AM EDT
|Congress is poised to miss its April 15 deadline for finishing next year’s budget without even considering a draft in either chamber.
Unlike citizens’ tax-filing deadline, Congress’s mid-April benchmark is nonbinding. And members seem to be in no rush to get the process going.
Indeed, some Democratic insiders suspect that leaders will skip the budget process altogether this year — a way to avoid the political unpleasantness of voting on spending, deficits and taxes in an election year — or simply go through a few of the motions, without any real effort to complete the work.
Regan LaChapelle, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would go only so far as saying that the budget “is on a list of things that are possible for this work period” — a reference to the window that opens when members roll back into town Monday and closes when they leave around Memorial Day.
Congress has failed to adopt a final budget four times in the past 35 years — for fiscal years 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 — according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. If the House does not pass a first version of the budget resolution, it will be the first time since the implementation of the 1974 Budget Act, which governs the modern congressional budgeting process.
The practical consequences of failing to produce a federal budget for next year are about the same as they are for a family that doesn’t set a plan for income and spending: Congress doesn’t need a budget to tax or spend, but enforcing discipline is harder without one. And, like a family that misses out on efficiencies because it hasn’t taken a hard look at its finances, Congress can’t use reconciliation rules to cut the deficit if the House and the Senate don’t adopt the same budget.
But there are political consequences to the budget conundrum, too — and for Democrats, they’re of the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” variety.
Republicans are certain to castigate the majority Democrats if they fail to put a fiscal blueprint in place amid a public backlash against spending and a torrent of dire warnings from economic experts about the consequences of imbalanced federal books.
But they’ll also call Democrats on the carpet if they approve a new budget that includes more spending, higher deficits or increased taxes.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the government’s books must be put in order through tax increases or slashing spending for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
“These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off — until the day they cannot be put off anymore,” Bernanke said.
Similar warnings have been issued in the past week by Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who is an adviser to President Barack Obama.
But there’s little appetite for taking on these issues in an election year and plenty of ways for the minority party to inflict pain upon anyone who tries.
In the Senate, expedited procedures allow for relatively quick consideration of a budget resolution — no filibusters need apply — but senators may offer an unlimited string of politically charged amendments culminating in a vote-a-rama certain to provide Republican challengers with fresh campaign ammunition.
Just last month, when the Senate considered a fiscal 2010 budget reconciliation bill dealing with health care, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to jam Democrats by forcing them to vote against an amendment that would have prohibited sex offenders from getting drugs for erectile dysfunction through the new health care exchanges.
And in the House, rank-and-file lawmakers are showing signs of political fatigue from a series of difficult votes, including enactment of the stimulus and health care laws and passage of a controversial climate change bill last year.
All of that raises this question: Why would Democratic leaders expose themselves and their rank and file to so much political risk, particularly when there’s no guarantee that the House and Senate could come to agreement on a final version?
After all, the budget itself is nonbinding, and the process to finish it is daunting: committee action in the House and Senate, painful floor votes in both chambers, negotiations to resolve differences if there are any and a second set of tough votes on a compromise version if needed.
Still, there’s an institutional interest for the budget committees in delivering a work product every year to demonstrate their importance. Even as most of the Capitol’s budget writers were tied up calculating costs and savings in the new health care law in the first quarter of the year, preparations for the fiscal 2011 budget were under way in both the House and the Senate budget committees.
Moreover, many Democrats believe they have a responsibility to at least try to put a budget in place.
Congressional aides said that Democratic leaders will have to make a decision soon after they reconvene this week about whether they can finish a budget before Memorial Day.
What’s lost in the absence of a budget, first and foremost, is the ability to write filibuster-proof reconciliation bills, which are the best vehicles for cutting spending or raising taxes in a highly partisan Senate.
In addition to reconciliation instructions, a budget also provides spending-control mechanisms, such as the 302(a) allocation that caps appropriations for the year, and can include “reserve” funds that grant lawmakers certain flexibility in budgeting for new laws.
But even if a budget isn’t in place, appropriators have tools at their disposal to implement an overall spending cap and individual suballocations for each of the committees’ 12 annual bills.