Budget reform is in the air again in Washington, with lawmakers brainstorming all kinds of ways to make a badly broken system work better. Ideas range from the perennial of switching from a one-year to a two-year budget cycle, providing Congress with more time for oversight and deliberation, all the way to docking lawmakers’ pay for every day a budget is not in force.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Jim Cooper, (D-Tenn.), are pushing a bipartisan “No Budget No Pay Act” that would halt all lawmakers’ paychecks if the House and Senate fail to jointly agree on a budget resolution by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Considering that Congress regularly fails to agree on a joint budget resolution and operates instead by continuing resolutions, this could be a pretty costly measure if approved by Congress.
But here’s another good idea that doesn’t require legislation or rule making: make a deal and then stick with it.
That idea springs to mind following a report Tuesday that House Republicans are getting ready to unveil a budget plan for fiscal 2013 that would alter the hard-won deficit reduction plan forged last summer by the White House and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to avert the first default on U.S. debt in history.
Apparently, with an eye to burnishing their conservative bonafides in an election year, prominent House GOP leaders and members want to set domestic discretionary spending for the coming year below the $1.047 trillion cap that was set by the budget deal last summer, The New York Times reported. House Budget Committee Republicans met privately with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., last week to try to establish new spending levels for government programs, other than entitlements, below the agreed-to caps. The Republicans are seeking an additional $16 billion to $18 billion in cuts, according to one source.
This move – which appears to have the blessing of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – is upsetting House and Senate Democrats who believe in the old adage that “a deal is a deal.” Some moderate Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee who are facing tough reelections also want to honor the agreement forged with President Obama as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. “We voted for it. That’s the number we should use,” said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. A spokesman for Boehner confirmed today that the speaker is behind the move by quoting a Webster’s dictionary definition of a cap as “an upper limit (as on expenditures)” and a “ceiling.”
“The caps are just that – caps,” Michael Steel, Boehner’s press secretary, told The Fiscal Times. “They define the upper limit. Going beneath – saving more taxpayer dollars – is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
True enough. But one need only recall the painfully chaotic and bitterly partisan months of negotiations leading up to the debt ceiling and deficit reduction deal last July to have second thoughts about a do-over. President Obama stalked out of a White House meeting with Cantor and other leaders after tensions flared. “He shoved back and said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and walked out,” Cantor told reporters after the meeting.
And later that month Boehner walked away from negotiations with the White House, and then had trouble rallying his rebellious conservative and tea party troops behind any plan. And even after an eleventh hour deal was negotiated in late July, Standard & Poor’s Credit rating agency the next week downgraded the U.S. government’s prized AAA status – a major humiliation for government leaders.
Moreover, the government is facing the prospects of $1.2 trillion of automatic cuts in domestic and defense spending or revenue increases over the coming decade -- the dreaded system of “sequestration” – because a “Super Committee” of House and Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators couldn’t agree on how to make those savings.
“I do not understand their fascination with government shutdowns and looking dysfunctional,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said of the House Republicans budget maneuvering.
Steve Bell, Senior Director of Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that the Republicans stand to gain relatively little “for the legislative and political pain” their efforts will cause. He said Congress should stick with the spending levels agreed to last summer in the Budget Control Act (BCA).
“You notice it’s the House Republicans talking about it – some of them – and not the Senate Republicans,” Bell said. “And perhaps some of the people in the House don’t feel as strongly that they made a deal. The BCA was a bipartisan deal . . . the House leadership and the Senate leadership made a deal on those numbers. I think there is some merit to saying on something of this magnitude . . . that not keeping to the agreement you made is a pretty serious matter.”
House Republicans will show their hand for the first time next week when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., formally unveils the new GOP budget blueprint, including a new approach to reducing the long-term costs of Medicare. Regardless of what the House Republicans settle on, it will be a largely symbolic gesture because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already made it clear he will not bring up a new budget resolution before the November election.
Instead, the House and Senate are expected to operate the government under a series of continuing resolutions that will largely follow the contours of the spending caps outlined in last summer’s deal. But by pressing for slightly more in deficit reduction, the Republicans hope to find ways to force Democrats into making politically difficult votes on spending and deficit reduction.
With so many more important tax and debt ceiling issues awaiting congressional action before and after the election, Bell said House Republicans could be playing with fire on the budget resolution. “Sometimes the hardest thing of all for people to accept is what I would call reality therapy,” said Bell, a former Senate Republican budget adviser. “And I think last year many members of Congress in both parties did not realize the magnitude of the sequester. . . and the extraordinary disruption to governmental activities that it would cause” beginning in 2013.
“A deal is a deal, especially on something where we almost got into a position where the United States of America wasn’t going to pay its bills on time,” Bell added. “This is not baby stuff.”