The Senate spent much of last week debating a budget for the 2014 federal spending year. In Washington these days, that is considered major progress.
Because for the previous three years, the Senate didn’t even bother to debate a budget, let alone pass one.
So now we have the spectacle of dueling budget resolutions — one by House Republicans and the other by Senate Democrats. They have one thing in common: Neither has much to do with reality.
First, the House budget: It calls for balancing the budget by 2023, which at least is a worthy goal. And the plain fact is that former President George W. Bush and his congressional GOP allies bear a major responsibility for the huge federal debt. They cut taxes twice, borrowed money to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and never made more than a half-hearted effort to curb federal spending.
But the GOP budget, approved by a vote of 221-to-207 last week, takes a rather implausible path to reach balance. The budget would reduce spending by $4.6 trillion during the next decade and reduce the government’s publicly held debt from 77 percent of gross domestic product today to 54.8 percent by 2023. Sounds pretty good.
However, to achieve a large chunk of those savings, House Republicans would kill the health-care law signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama. Anyone want to make a bet on that happening while Obama is president? I didn’t think so.
At least the Republican budget tries to reach balance sometime before most of us die. By contrast, Senate Democrats don’t even pretend to balance the budget anytime soon. Instead, they want to control the deficit during the next decade by raising taxes by $975 billion and cutting spending by $875 billion. At the end of the decade the government will still be piling up debt.
And what is the chance of this budget passing the House? Once again, the answer is zero.
So where do we go from here? Some optimists see hope.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and a member of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, said the House and Senate budget plans are “part of the exercise you have to go through,” adding that lawmakers from both parties can “pivot” and talk about a serious debt solution.
But, she warned, “if people cling to these budget documents as realistic, then you know they are not serious.”
The problem is that far too many in Washington just do not seem serious. It will take a combination of tax increases and spending restraints in the fast-growing entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to bring the deficit under control.
Republicans don’t want to raise taxes again after agreeing to them earlier this year to end the fiscal-cliff crisis. And Democrats consider any changes in entitlements as heresy. Even more alarming, a number of progressives are singing the hymn that deficits aren’t all that much of a bother anyway. Such thinking is scary to deficit experts.
Yet a number of lawmakers know perfectly well that long-term projected deficits are “incredibly dangerous,” as MacGuineas said. She pointed to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who last week floated the idea of a bipartisan commission to devise a plan to salvage Social Security.
What has been missing is presidential leadership. So far, Obama has been a no-show on the budget.
As MacGuineas said, “You are going to have to have involvement from the White House to keep this moving forward.”
Jack Torry is chief of the Dispatch’s Washington bureau. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org