Published January 08, 2013
-- The number of days since the Senate last passed a budget, April 29, 2009.
Simple ideas are usually the best ones, and the latest idea for dealing with the looming battle over the federal debt limit is beautifully simple.
No, Power Play is not talking about the $1 trillion platinum coin nor the idea that the president could simply declare the limit lifted under the ambiguous powers of the 14th Amendment (good luck borrowing money from anyone but Ben Bernanke after either ploy).
The simple solution that might avoid the pending panic is to actually pass a federal budget, or, more specifically, to have the Senate pass a budget for what would only be the second time in the Obama presidency.
The plan is from Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is the ranking minority member on the Senate Budget Committee. Though he will likely find the Obama Democrats to be more successful on defense than his Crimson Tide found in Notre Dame, Sessions’ idea is quickly gaining support.
The law and good politics both require that Congress pass a budget each year. The law can be skirted through “continuing resolutions” that keep the government running in the absence of a budget. Politics, though, are not so easily avoided.
Democrats started ditching the budget process back when they controlled both houses of Congress and opted to do so with supermajorities in both chambers. They could have passed budgets but opted not to because, well, budgets these days are real downers.
It’s bad enough when your government is borrowing more than $1 trillion a year – more than one third of its total outlays. It’s way worse when the green-eyeshade team at the Congressional Budget Office go to work on long-term expenditures.
Medicare, Social Security, Defense and government pension legacy costs look boggling in real time. On a 10-year curve they become dispiriting on both sides of the aisle.
To deal with this gloom, the Obama Democrats have opted to simply ignore it. They have the Senate just sit on the budget ball. The president, as required, proposes a budget, but does so confident in the knowledge that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will not ever bring it forward for a vote.
When Republicans once succeeded in forcing a vote on the president’s budget the measure was unanimously defeated. Democrats said they were voting against it because of the strong-arm tactics used to bring it to the floor, but the truth is that no one liked the plan or wanted to see it implemented, not even the president who proposed it.
The House proposes budgets too, and conservatives in the lower chamber do so equally confident in Reid’s obstructionism. While Republicans are happy to have survived a billion-dollar Democratic onslaught against House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, the red team is free to indulge any ideas they like in a budget proposal because the thing is guaranteed to never become law.
The budget plans from Obama and Ryan are both political documents, designed to produce good talking points and reinforce fiscal priorities but not be applied to governance. Obama knows that many even in his own party would never go for the kind of spending and taxes he has proposed and many starchily conservative Republicans might lose their creases if they thought Medicare would really be turned into a voucher program right now.
But Republicans have screamed for three years about the absence of a federal budget and Reid has simply grinned back at them.
Jacob Lew, the current White House chief of staff and soon to be nominee for Treasury secretary, once famously failed in the effort to explain the lack of a Senate budget by telling CNN back in February that it takes 60 votes for the Senate to pass a budget and Republicans were being obstructionist.
But Lew knew perfectly well that it takes only 51 votes to pass a budget in the Senate, well within the boundaries of the Democratic majority. What Lew meant was that the budget passed by the Senate would only become law, assuming the House did not approve, with 60 votes.
As for the simple disciple and legality of passing a budget, the Obama Democrats have been mum. They can dismiss it all as Washington gamesmanship, but there’s something in the fact that the Senate has gone nearly four years without a budget that sticks in the craws of voters. It’s unseemly.
While there will be many proposals for forcing spending cuts in next month’s debt-limit battle, Sessions’ plan is reinstating a process that makes it easier for fiscal hawks to limit spending increases.
By forcing Democratic Senators to vote on a budget plan, Sessions would be calling the bluff of moderate Democrats who lament the state of the deficit but are never forced to vote on the legislation that creates it. They vote to continue current spending and then go on talk shows to shake their heads at the state of things, a doubly advantageous situation. They get the spending constituents want, with increases already built in, but don’t have to claim it as their own.
Reid will fight hard against exposing his many vulnerable members to budget votes ahead of the 2014 elections, but it will be hard for him and Obama to argue against a plea that the Senate simply do what the law requires and pass a budget.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“Look, it seems to me with the Boehner interview that Republican leadership is finally beginning to understand what some of us have been arguing now for four years. Barack Obama has zero interest in cutting spending. Churchill once said, I did not become the King's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. Obama is saying, I did not become president of the United States to preside over the liquidation over the welfare state or the contraction of it, and we saw it in his actions.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.