TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein: The Democrats’ Potemkin budget hearings

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appeared before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday to testify about the president’s budget proposal, which has almost no chance of passing.

Last year, the president’s budget was so well received that it achieved precisely zero votes in the Senate — and this year’s edition looks like it will be just as enthusiastically welcomed. In fact, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is so confident that even Democrats will reject the bill that he will introduce it for a vote himself.

What’s more, even though the Senate Democrats haven’t passed a real budget in over 1,000 days, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed not to bring a budget of their own to the floor this year either.

But that won’t stop Senate Democrats from putting on a show.

Democratic Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad is intent on marking up a budget in his committee, despite Reid’s pledge to stick with the parameters of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which completely punts on dealing with America’s long-term fiscal catastrophe and is not a real budget as traditionally understood.

So important figures will be dragged before Conrad’s committee to testify about the president’s budget — which we basically know won’t pass and may again get zero votes — and possibly about the budget Conrad will mark up as well, which we know from the outset isn’t even going to get a floor vote.

There’s a term for this: a charade.

But then again, what could the secretary of defense and other top officials have to do that is more important than participating in a Potemkin budget hearing?

America’s number one domestic challenge is its long-term liabilities. America’s entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — constitute tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Republicans sought to address this looming disaster with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan, which passed the House in April 2011 with all but four Republicans supporting it and no votes from Democrats.

Voting for the bill took political courage. Republicans touched a third-rail of American politics by supporting a proposal that would drastically alter Medicare to make it more sustainable. They stuck their necks out and Democrats will surely use the vote during the 2012 elections to scare elderly voters by demagoguing that Republicans want to, essentially, kill them.

In fact, we’ve already seen an ad by The Agenda Project literally showing Republicans pushing a wheelchair-bound granny off a cliff. Real classy.

It is understandable that Democrats wouldn’t want to put their name to a serious budget that would address long-term liabilities — they don’t want to risk alienating elderly voters and lose the propaganda advantage over Republicans. This helps explain why President Obama essentially ignored the entitlement reforms backed by a majority of the bipartisan debt commission he established.

We are told that the president agreed to significant entitlement reforms in negotiations with the GOP during last summer’s debt ceiling debate before the negotiations over a “grand-bargain” deal fell apart. But nothing was on paper. No Democrats had to vote on it. There was certainly nothing like the entire Republican House chamber, with four exceptions, voting for the serious reforms in Paul Ryan’s budget plan.

Instead of proposing a real remedy to our entitlement crisis, President Obama ambles along, proposing budgets that produce charts like this (from page 58 of President Obama’s FY 2013 budget — this is not a joke):



Conrad may be making a sincere effort to put forward a serious budget proposal before he retires at the end of this Congress. Republican Ranking Budget Committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions has described Conrad’s decision to mark up a budget despite his party leadership’s decision to ignore the results as “bold.”

But no matter how bold it is, it’s dead on arrival — even more dead than the president’s budget, which one would think would at least get the courtesy of a perfunctory floor vote.

Panetta’s Tuesday appearance before the Budget Committee may prove important if it somehow spurs Congress to act to stop the sequestered defense cuts that are slated to go into effect in 2013 as result of the failure of the “super committee” to agree on deficit reduction. He told the committee that failing to reverse those cuts would be devastating to America’s national security.

But the idea of having important figures like Panetta come before the committee to testify about the president’s FY 2013 budget, as Tuesday’s hearing advertised, or about the budget Conrad intends to mark up, is preposterous when we know these budgets aren’t going anywhere.

It’s a shame that while America gallops towards fiscal insolvency, Senate Democrats are content to engage in theatrical displays.

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