March 24, 2012 – 12:45 p.m.
Political Economy: Budget or Leave It
By John Cranford, CQ Columnist
The predictable call and response over the House Republican budget proposal won’t die down for a while — in fact, it will get louder this week, when the budget comes to the floor. Any ordinary American who isn’t steeped in the rituals of Washington might actually think this is a momentous time.
Republicans will praise the budget’s author, Rep.
Truth to tell, the GOP’s accolades for Ryan and the Democrats’ denunciations are only palaver that, in the end, reflect deeply entrenched positions but will have no real bearing on almost anything of substance.
This is not to say that Ryan hasn’t opened the door to some very important and contentious policy disputes. He delivered a 99-page manifesto and gave a pair of speeches designed to lay out the Republican vision of changes that need to be made in the operations of government.
It’s just that the budget itself, specifically the concurrent resolution that the House will debate and presumably adopt, doesn’t really engage any of those contentious issues.
Cut tax rates for upper-income earners? Nope, the budget resolution wouldn’t do it. Nor would it even start the ball rolling to make an overhaul of the tax code happen later.
Replace Medicare with a new voucher-like premium support system for future retirees? Nope, it wouldn’t do that, either.
In fact, the budget resolution the House will fight about does contain a 400-word “policy statement” on Medicare, most of which is anodyne and factual. It endorses in a vague way the notion of a premium support structure for Medicare, but it mostly asserts that Medicare is too expensive and needs to be fixed so seniors aren’t left unprotected and the program can stay financially sustainable.
What about upending Social Security? Nope, not that, either. Again, the budget resolution includes a relatively short, fact-based recitation of the system’s long-term financial status and a hortatory call for bringing all sides together to find a “bipartisan” way to address Social Security’s needs 75 years in the future.
But in the case of both Medicare and Social Security, the resolution would do absolutely nothing to make anything happen. And while the specifics of any future changes to Medicare and Social Security would be difficult to negotiate, few would argue with the underlying premise.
That’s the thing about budget resolutions. Most of the time, their true significance comes down to one number: the total dollar amount that appropriators can divvy up across the government for the coming fiscal year.
Ryan proposes allocating $1.028 trillion for non-emergency discretionary spending for fiscal 2013. The Democrats cry foul and say lengthy negotiations last summer resulted in a slightly higher figure for next year, $1.047 trillion. The difference of $19 billion is itself a huge amount and impossibly hard for most people to imagine. Yet it amounts to less than 2 percent of the negotiated spending level. That hardly seems a reason to take off the gloves.
An Alternative Scenario
Political Economy: Budget or Leave It
In addition, if adopted by both chambers, Ryan’s budget would initiate a method of replacing the automatic spending “sequester” for fiscal 2013 that is set take a $98 billion bite out of defense and non-defense appropriations next January.
The specific savings to replace the sequester, and prevent the deficit from growing, would be determined later by authorizing committees through a procedure called budget reconciliation. If that process were to go forward, it would undoubtedly lead to difficult negotiations and complaints that the budget doesn’t demand an increase in revenue to help reduce the deficit.
But reconciliation cannot go forward without the agreement of the Senate, and the Democrats in charge of that chamber have no intention of playing ball with the House. So we’ll never have a chance to see whether that might work out.
The Senate could choose to join in the game, of course, and House Republicans could choose to find a way to write a budget resolution so that it isn’t regarded as a thrown-down partisan gauntlet. Indeed, it’s a bet worth taking that, by the end of the year, appropriations bills will be written that hew to the House cap of $1.028 trillion. And that’s the only thing that really matters in the budget, anyway.
In a less polarized time, lawmakers from both parties and both chambers would have a serious negotiation over the rest of what’s in Ryan’s resolution — which, in many respects, is little different from the one he produced a year ago — and might find a way to compromise. Change a few words, and cut away the dense political underbrush that was Ryan’s real purpose in writing it, and his budget might get 400 votes in the House and 98 in the Senate.
But until November, and maybe long after, that’s just a dream.