When it comes to the budget, those who look to Washington for leadership and solutions are like Charlie Brown – constantly hoping this time Lucy won’t move the football.
In 2010, the President and Congress kicked the can down the road to see if the Simpson-Bowles Commission could get the job done instead. It failed. In 2011, Congress foisted its job onto the so-called super-committee, which was supposed to come up with at least a modest bargain on deficit reduction. It ignominiously collapsed a few months later, leaving sequestration to take effect. And within a year, members of both parties were trying to overturn the modest deficit reduction components of the sequester.
In October of this year, Congress and the president tried again, with the Senate and House Budget Committee chairs leading the traditional “conference committee,” in which the respective chambers of Congress work to compromise between the differing goals of the Senate and the House. Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that kicking the can down the road to avoid tough pre-election decisions will supersede the goal of preventing America’s forthcoming fiscal crisis.
According to Politico, after nearly two months of discussions, Democrats and Republicans on the conference committee may agree to a few modest changes to current policy: spending approximately $30 billion more than sequestration allows, and raising fees for airline security, auctioning broadband spectrum, and modifying federal employee retirement plans.
While both parties are pretending these changes are worth cheering, in fact they are signs of yet another failure by Congress. Rather than address the nation’s spending problem, avoiding a bigger discussion has everything to do with the 2014 elections.
For Democrats, spending $30 billion more than sequestration allows them to brag they prevented sequestration from taking effect in 2014. It also allows them to claim they compromised on their original goal of spending $91 billion more than sequestration.
The fees are a bonus for Democrats, who will tell liberal constituents they got increased federal revenue.
For Republicans, including the not-so-conservative Paul Ryan (who chairs the House Budget Committee, and is the lead Republican in the discussions) spending $30 billion more than sequestration allows them to say they stopped Democrats from spending as much as the latter wanted. The fees let them say tax hikes were avoided, even though fees still take more money out of the pockets of the American people.
In the end, if the above deal takes place, it would have the practical implication of not changing the expected deficit in 2014. It would not put tax reform into place. Entitlement reform would not happen. The most important outcome is allowing the GOP to avoid a tough fight like the one in October that hurt them with the public – and for both parties to avoid spending battles that would hurt them with their various bases of supporters.
In 2012, 91 percent of Members of Congress won re-election, despite Congress’ approval rating hovering at a mere 15 percent. In 2014, the American people have the chance to remind Congress the nation’s future is at stake with every failure of budget talks – and continuous failure will be punished by a loss on Election Day.
Of course, Congress reflects the mood of the nation – which means if the American people want Congress to get serious about the budget, we the people must finally do so.