Commentary Magazine


Topic: Senate Budget Committee

Conrad’s Final Markup and Fiscal Legacy

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.

It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.

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Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.

It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.

At the phantom markup today, Senate Republicans took out their frustration on Democratic leadership, which appears to have pressured Conrad into canceling the markup out of fear that a budget would make it to a floor vote before the election.

“I want to say how much I appreciate your efforts to bring a budget to the Senate floor and how much I sympathize with your dilemma,” Sen. John Cornyn told Conrad. “At the end of a long and distinguished Senate career you deserve more, and so do the American people.”

Sen. Grassley also sympathized with Conrad. “I understand the predicament that our beloved chairman is in…and the way he’s been treated by the leadership,” he said. “As much as he knows what should be done, party leadership doesn’t want him to do it.”

And Sen. Graham conceded the same. “Clearly your heart is in the right place,” he told the chairman. “But institutionally we’re broken.”

But as much credit as Conrad gets, his budget proposal is far from fiscally responsible. It includes $600 billion more in tax hikes than President Obama’s budget and increases debt by more than $8 trillion, according to Senate Republican estimates.

This isn’t a budget plan many moderate Democrats would agree to support, and Republicans would certainly attack it at length. And that’s fine. There’s no getting around the fact that negotiations can’t begin until a budget is offered up and debated. Conrad had a chance to make that his legacy. Instead, thanks to Democratic leadership, he’ll be remembered as the so-called fiscal hawk chairman who allowed the deficit to careen out of control for political points.

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Dems Back Down on Plan to Pretend to Do Something About Budget

It finally looked like Senate Budget Committee Democrats were going to go ahead with a budget markup today, albeit a pointless one as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would block any budget resolution from a floor vote. But the committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, is suddenly punting on the plan:

The Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget blueprint since April 2009, and it won’t do so again this spring as election-year pressures consume Capitol Hill. In fact, Conrad’s budget “markup” Wednesday won’t even be a real markup because senators won’t actually offer amendments or vote.

The 10-year budget plan Conrad unveiled Tuesday is based on the so-called Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, though the chairman conceded it’s “just reality” that any real deficit work by his committee will likely be put off until after November.

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It finally looked like Senate Budget Committee Democrats were going to go ahead with a budget markup today, albeit a pointless one as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would block any budget resolution from a floor vote. But the committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, is suddenly punting on the plan:

The Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget blueprint since April 2009, and it won’t do so again this spring as election-year pressures consume Capitol Hill. In fact, Conrad’s budget “markup” Wednesday won’t even be a real markup because senators won’t actually offer amendments or vote.

The 10-year budget plan Conrad unveiled Tuesday is based on the so-called Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, though the chairman conceded it’s “just reality” that any real deficit work by his committee will likely be put off until after November.

Conrad is still calling this a markup, but now it’s really just a show for cameras. The fact that there won’t even be a vote, or any amendments taken, makes this little more than a novelty exercise.

It sounds like Reid felt it was too risky to allow the committee vote and give Republicans an opening to build up pressure for a floor vote, so he asked Conrad to back off. Meanwhile, Republicans were obviously hoping for a budget discussion, and aren’t happy with the sudden change of events. And it’s hard to blame them. Democrats have shown, time and time again, that they’re not interested in taking action on a budget. Today’s markup charade is just the latest example.

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The Future of Defense Spending

The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

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The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

Incidentally, the House Budget Committee office tells me the same thing doesn’t happen under chairman Paul Ryan’s budget. Here is their chart for comparison:

Under Ryan’s plan, the defense spending and interest payments are actually the inverse of the levels in Obama’s plan by 2022. As you can see, the interest payments still rise with Ryan’s budget, but at a slower pace, while defense spending increases at a healthy rate during the next decade.

This is a prime example of why getting the debt under control is crucial for the future of national security. But under the president’s budget, neither debt reduction nor defense spending are a priority. Liberals have argued that cutting defense is the best way to get the national debt problem under control, but as these two charts show, that’s not the outcome from Obama’s defense cuts. Even with defense reductions, the interest payments still rise faster than under Ryan’s plan.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

The number of terrorists convicted in the criminal-justice system is 300. Or 195. Or 39, if you believe the ACLU.  Andy McCarthy writes: “It is disingenuous to low-ball the figure, as the ACLU does, in order to minimize the problem. It is equally disingenuous to exaggerate the figure, as DOJ is now doing, to create a myth of law-enforcement effectiveness (in order to discredit wartime military processes). Both of these plays are in the Left’s playbook. But guys, but when your objective is to hoodwink the public, you’re not supposed to run both plays at the same time! Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Obama is not turning out to be everything (anything?) the Left had hoped he’d be. Eli Lake reports: “President Obama is coming under pressure from Democrats and civil liberties groups for failing to fill positions on an oversight panel formed in 2004 to make sure the government does not spy improperly on U.S. citizens. … Since taking office, Mr. Obama has allowed the board to languish. He has not even spent the panel’s allocation from the fiscal 2010 budget.” Well, he hasn’t set up the High Value Interrogation group either, so the Left shouldn’t take it personally. He’s just not very good on following through.

But the key test for Democrats is not what they say in a hearing, but how they vote: “The Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said he is a skeptic of President Barack Obama’s long-term budget plan. Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) told White House officials Tuesday that the nation can’t accept the budget’s projected deficits at the end of this decade, which approach $1 trillion. ‘We are on an unsustainable course by any measure,’ Conrad said during his committee’s first hearing on the administration’s 2011 budget request. ‘I believe the president is taking us in the right direction over the next several years,’ he added. ‘But I must say I am very concerned about the long term.’”

More horrid polling for Blanche Lincoln: “Her GOP rivals, including Congressman John Boozman who is expected to enter the race on Saturday, all earn roughly 50% of the vote against the two-term Democrat. … Boozman, the newest entrant in the race, runs strongest among likely voters in Arkansas for now, beating Lincoln by 19 points, 54% to 35%. State Senator Gilbert Baker also leads Lincoln by 19, 52% to 33%. State Senate Minority Leader Kim Hendren posts a 51% to 35% lead over the incumbent.”

The Obami’s vendetta against Fox was a stunning success — for Fox. “Fox News had its best January in the history of the network, and was the only cable news network to grow year-to-year. FNC also had the top 13 programs on cable news in total viewers for the fifth month in a row, and the top 13 programs in the A25-54 demographic for the first time in more than five years.”

Sen. John Kerry: “We need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.” It may be a daft idea to amend the Constitution so as to restrict speech, but at least he’s more honest than the president. You can’t overrule a First Amendment decision by statute.

Sen. Judd Gregg will be missed when he retires. “Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag faced the wrath of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Tuesday during the Senate Budget Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s budget proposal for 2011. Gregg was irked about President Obama’s plan to unveil a new proposal to use $30 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to help community banks lend to small businesses at an event Tuesday afternoon in Nashua, NH — Gregg’s home state. ‘This proposal violates the law,’ Gregg said. ‘The whole concept of the TARP was as we recouped the money, we would use it to pay down the debt. Now that’s not going to happen. It’s become a piggy bank. A piggy bank which adds to our deficit.’”

Yes, Richard Reid was Mirandized. So what? John McCormack: “But the fact remains that it was a mistake to mirandize Abdulmutallab — just as it was a mistake to mirandize Reid. At what point will Democrats realize that the Bush administration’s mistakes are not an excuse for the Obama administration’s failures?” The answer is never. They ran against Bush, they won being against Bush, they crafted not-Bush national-security policies, and now they are convinced they can govern being not Bush (except when they repeat an error of the Bush administration). This is what comes from Bush Derangement Syndrome, I suppose.

The number of terrorists convicted in the criminal-justice system is 300. Or 195. Or 39, if you believe the ACLU.  Andy McCarthy writes: “It is disingenuous to low-ball the figure, as the ACLU does, in order to minimize the problem. It is equally disingenuous to exaggerate the figure, as DOJ is now doing, to create a myth of law-enforcement effectiveness (in order to discredit wartime military processes). Both of these plays are in the Left’s playbook. But guys, but when your objective is to hoodwink the public, you’re not supposed to run both plays at the same time! Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Obama is not turning out to be everything (anything?) the Left had hoped he’d be. Eli Lake reports: “President Obama is coming under pressure from Democrats and civil liberties groups for failing to fill positions on an oversight panel formed in 2004 to make sure the government does not spy improperly on U.S. citizens. … Since taking office, Mr. Obama has allowed the board to languish. He has not even spent the panel’s allocation from the fiscal 2010 budget.” Well, he hasn’t set up the High Value Interrogation group either, so the Left shouldn’t take it personally. He’s just not very good on following through.

But the key test for Democrats is not what they say in a hearing, but how they vote: “The Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said he is a skeptic of President Barack Obama’s long-term budget plan. Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) told White House officials Tuesday that the nation can’t accept the budget’s projected deficits at the end of this decade, which approach $1 trillion. ‘We are on an unsustainable course by any measure,’ Conrad said during his committee’s first hearing on the administration’s 2011 budget request. ‘I believe the president is taking us in the right direction over the next several years,’ he added. ‘But I must say I am very concerned about the long term.’”

More horrid polling for Blanche Lincoln: “Her GOP rivals, including Congressman John Boozman who is expected to enter the race on Saturday, all earn roughly 50% of the vote against the two-term Democrat. … Boozman, the newest entrant in the race, runs strongest among likely voters in Arkansas for now, beating Lincoln by 19 points, 54% to 35%. State Senator Gilbert Baker also leads Lincoln by 19, 52% to 33%. State Senate Minority Leader Kim Hendren posts a 51% to 35% lead over the incumbent.”

The Obami’s vendetta against Fox was a stunning success — for Fox. “Fox News had its best January in the history of the network, and was the only cable news network to grow year-to-year. FNC also had the top 13 programs on cable news in total viewers for the fifth month in a row, and the top 13 programs in the A25-54 demographic for the first time in more than five years.”

Sen. John Kerry: “We need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.” It may be a daft idea to amend the Constitution so as to restrict speech, but at least he’s more honest than the president. You can’t overrule a First Amendment decision by statute.

Sen. Judd Gregg will be missed when he retires. “Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag faced the wrath of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Tuesday during the Senate Budget Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s budget proposal for 2011. Gregg was irked about President Obama’s plan to unveil a new proposal to use $30 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to help community banks lend to small businesses at an event Tuesday afternoon in Nashua, NH — Gregg’s home state. ‘This proposal violates the law,’ Gregg said. ‘The whole concept of the TARP was as we recouped the money, we would use it to pay down the debt. Now that’s not going to happen. It’s become a piggy bank. A piggy bank which adds to our deficit.’”

Yes, Richard Reid was Mirandized. So what? John McCormack: “But the fact remains that it was a mistake to mirandize Abdulmutallab — just as it was a mistake to mirandize Reid. At what point will Democrats realize that the Bush administration’s mistakes are not an excuse for the Obama administration’s failures?” The answer is never. They ran against Bush, they won being against Bush, they crafted not-Bush national-security policies, and now they are convinced they can govern being not Bush (except when they repeat an error of the Bush administration). This is what comes from Bush Derangement Syndrome, I suppose.

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No Life Preserver for Tax-and Spend Democrats

The Democrats are frantically searching for a political lifeboat. They have been on a tax-and-spend jag, run up the debt, and only angered the public. So they latched on to a “solution” — a debt-reduction commission to recommend tax hikes and spending cuts, with a goal to report back after the congressional elections with a plan, this report explains, “for shrinking the federal budget deficit to 3% of the gross domestic product by 2015 from the current 10% level, and on steps to contain long-term budget problems through tax increases and changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” The commission would have a total of 10 Democrats (six appointed by the Congress, the rest by the president) and eight Republicans (six appointed by Republicans in Congress, the rest by the president).

Meanwhile, the Congress can go merrily along with health care and the rest of its agenda, spending to its heart’s content. As the report notes: “Underscoring the problem, the Senate is poised to vote to raise the national debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion, just weeks after a $290 billion increase at the end of 2009. The debt currently stands at $12.322 trillion.”

Why in the world would Republicans go along with this charade? Well, they aren’t, it seems. Their immediate concerns are the lack of statutory authority for the commission and the absence of any requirement for Congress to even vote on its recommendations:

Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire dismissed it as a political fig leaf and instead called on President Barack Obama to support enactment of a law that would establish a commission and require an up-or-down congressional vote on its recommendations. Tuesday’s plan would create the panel by executive order. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has also withheld his support.

But even if these obstacles were overcome, there are substantive and political reasons for conservatives not to play along with this scheme. For starters, with 10 Democrats plus two Obama-handpicked Republicans, the outcome is preordained. The recommendation will include hefty tax hikes. But the crux of the problem is that it lets the big spenders off the hook. In fact, it encourages them to keep it up, since an independent commission is going to take care of all that deficit stuff. As the Wall Street Journal editors point out:

We can see why Democrats would love this idea. In the past year they have passed: a $447 billion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2009, a $787 billion stimulus, $3 billion for cash for clunkers, $75 billion in mortgage assistance, $34 billion for children’s health care (Schip), $30 billion in anticipated auto bailout losses, with another nearly 11% spending increase teed up for fiscal 2010 for domestic programs. This party was fun, but now comes the headache (see Massachusetts) and the need for GOP tax partners.

Emboldened by Scott Brown’s victory, Republicans seem poised to play it smart and not offer the drowning Democrats a life preserver. Democrats thought there was no consequence, economic or political, to their spending spree. The loyal opposition should take the rest of the year to explain why they were wrong.

The Democrats are frantically searching for a political lifeboat. They have been on a tax-and-spend jag, run up the debt, and only angered the public. So they latched on to a “solution” — a debt-reduction commission to recommend tax hikes and spending cuts, with a goal to report back after the congressional elections with a plan, this report explains, “for shrinking the federal budget deficit to 3% of the gross domestic product by 2015 from the current 10% level, and on steps to contain long-term budget problems through tax increases and changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” The commission would have a total of 10 Democrats (six appointed by the Congress, the rest by the president) and eight Republicans (six appointed by Republicans in Congress, the rest by the president).

Meanwhile, the Congress can go merrily along with health care and the rest of its agenda, spending to its heart’s content. As the report notes: “Underscoring the problem, the Senate is poised to vote to raise the national debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion, just weeks after a $290 billion increase at the end of 2009. The debt currently stands at $12.322 trillion.”

Why in the world would Republicans go along with this charade? Well, they aren’t, it seems. Their immediate concerns are the lack of statutory authority for the commission and the absence of any requirement for Congress to even vote on its recommendations:

Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire dismissed it as a political fig leaf and instead called on President Barack Obama to support enactment of a law that would establish a commission and require an up-or-down congressional vote on its recommendations. Tuesday’s plan would create the panel by executive order. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has also withheld his support.

But even if these obstacles were overcome, there are substantive and political reasons for conservatives not to play along with this scheme. For starters, with 10 Democrats plus two Obama-handpicked Republicans, the outcome is preordained. The recommendation will include hefty tax hikes. But the crux of the problem is that it lets the big spenders off the hook. In fact, it encourages them to keep it up, since an independent commission is going to take care of all that deficit stuff. As the Wall Street Journal editors point out:

We can see why Democrats would love this idea. In the past year they have passed: a $447 billion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2009, a $787 billion stimulus, $3 billion for cash for clunkers, $75 billion in mortgage assistance, $34 billion for children’s health care (Schip), $30 billion in anticipated auto bailout losses, with another nearly 11% spending increase teed up for fiscal 2010 for domestic programs. This party was fun, but now comes the headache (see Massachusetts) and the need for GOP tax partners.

Emboldened by Scott Brown’s victory, Republicans seem poised to play it smart and not offer the drowning Democrats a life preserver. Democrats thought there was no consequence, economic or political, to their spending spree. The loyal opposition should take the rest of the year to explain why they were wrong.

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