Commentary Magazine


The Strange, but Revealing, Budget Process

I suppose it says something about Washington that the act of voting on a federal budget is now a symbolic exercise with relevance only to the next congressional election’s various campaign advertisements. But we are now represented by a Congress which approaches the budget process with no intention of enacting an actual budget. The only measure of true bipartisan agreement is that President Obama’s ideas are terrible, unable to muster any support on either side of the isle.

So the president has apparently given up. Among the many budget-related stunts and shenanigans this week was a House Republican demand for a vote on President Obama’s 2014 budget–which is currently nonexistent, and therefore a blank page. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been unwilling and unable to pass a budget; the House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget today, as they do each year (a novel concept Democrats still don’t seem to understand). Both parties in the House presented budgets they knew wouldn’t pass before approving the GOP budget. That resulted in a frightening moment for the party in power, when they risked accidentally passing a budget produced by their own party that was not the one they actually wanted to enact. As the Hill reported on a Republican Study Committee-produced budget yesterday:

Democrats voted present to force more Republicans to vote against the Republican Study Committee’s (RSC) budget. Democrats hoped that by getting their members to vote present instead of against the budget, it might be approved by the House.

That would have allowed Democrats to train their campaign ads on the RSC budget, which would boost the Social Security age to 70 and cut Medicare benefits, including for people now 59 years old. The RSC blueprint would balance the budget in four years.

That is, for better or worse, our current budget debate in a nutshell. Democrats think the budget is terrible for the country, so they want it to pass; and though it does more to fix entitlements and balance the budget than any other GOP plan, Republicans wanted it to fail so they could then pass a budget that does those things less effectively but more palatably. The latter budget–Paul Ryan’s budget–passed this morning.

The Ryan plan sets the federal government on the path to a balanced budget and preserves Medicare. The Democrats in the Senate will respond with their own budget, which will increase spending and taxes and endanger entitlements by leaving them on an unsustainable path. Democrats are happy with both budgets, because they won’t have to worry about enacting their own plan and the fiscal ruin it is designed to bring upon the country, but they also think Ryan’s plan to save Medicare is unpopular and will hurt Republicans in the next midterm elections as Democrats ramp up their demagoguery and scare tactics.

On that note, Sean Trende has an edifying column today in which he cautions Democrats that they may be right about the Ryan budget, but they are taking much more of a leap of faith than they think. Democrats base some of the triumphalism on the belief that the Ryan budget, and more generally the talk of reforming entitlements and practicing austerity, cost the GOP votes in November. But Trende adds some context. The whole thing is worth reading, but Trende notes the exit polls showed the public trusted the GOP ticket on the economy more than Obama; that the claim that Republicans only held the House due to redistricting has been debunked; that demographics played a role in helping re-elect Obama that was unrelated, to a certain degree, to austerity plans; and that there were more supporters of Democratic candidates than of liberal policy objectives, among other insights into the polling data.

Additionally, Democrats had far less traction with this issue among key demographics than they expected. As the Palm Beach Post reported in August of last year:

But two Florida polls conducted since Ryan’s selection suggest that voters who are 65 and older support Ryan and his budget plan more than younger voters do. A third Florida poll released this week doesn’t include an age breakdown, but finds the state’s voters agreeing more with Ryan’s description of his budget and Medicare plan than with Democratic criticisms that it would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Democrats may think that bringing up the Ryan budget every year is going to pigeonhole Republicans as the party that wants to “end Medicare as we know it,” but it’s possible that the Democrats’ dishonest Mediscare tactics may lose their already questionable potency through exaggeration and obnoxious repetition.

Additionally, it will continue to draw contrast between the Republicans’ debt-cutting agenda, which is less popular than the GOP hoped but more popular than Democrats expected, and the Democrats’ steadfast refusal to take issues of debt and deficit seriously. After all the budget machinations this week, one thing remained constant: Republicans passed a budget with a plan to fix the nation’s finances, and Obama produced a blank sheet of paper. Both parties seem willing to take that message to the voters.

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