Reporter's Notebook: Congress' budget battles spark confusion without much progress

Scribes spilled much ink this week over the release of President Trump’s $4.8 trillion budget sent to Congress. Such budget proposals are required by law. But they’re not binding. Congress doesn’t have to act on a presidential budget. They don’t become law. They are merely aspirations, underscoring an administration’s policy priorities.

President Trump may aim to spend $10 on one program, whereas President Obama would have only spent $8. You get the idea. That’s a budget.

As a result, budgets aren’t real. They’re kind of a tree-killing press release. Still, Washington wades into an annual ritual where lawmakers either excoriate the budget or heap praise on its goals, contingent on their party and the party of the president. Interest groups get in on the act, too, either saluting or pillorying a given decision. It’s likely that most of the public wouldn’t understand the difference between the budget and the appropriations process. The 12 appropriations bills which run the government on a year-to-year basis are like live ammo. Lacking context, many people may be misled into thinking the budget is what the government actually would spend as a result of this charade.

“Talk to your appropriators,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. “They spend the money, the exact dollars. Do your work there.”

Fiscal confusion.

Inevitably, lawmakers of the opposite party declare the budget “dead on arrival.” That may be one of the few true statements in the entire enterprise. Congress won’t truly consider the document anyway. But, per dictates of the protocol, Democrats excoriated Trump’s budget since they disagreed with many of the spending suggestions anyway.

“I tried to tear it in two,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., of Trump’s spending blueprint. “But, apparently, I’m not as strong as” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he added.

Want to get a sense of how many pages the budget consumes? Well, there are four volumes. The “main” volume runs 132 pages. An appendix is 1,397 pages. A volume on “analytical perspectives” runs 307 pages. And, a section on major savings stretches to 189 pages.

No wonder everyone seems to find the process so mystifying.

Yarmuth said he can’t imagine advancing any sort of budget resolution in the House this year. That’s because the Trump administration and key Democrats and Republicans reached a two-year budget accord last summer, covering the current spending cycle. Yarmuth did conduct a hearing with Acting Budget Director Russ Vought on Wednesday, but Enzi declined to do the same. In a floor speech, Enzi described the budget request as “a foot-high” pile which the White House could condense to a handful of ideas.

“I want to encourage people,” said Enzi, “not to waste any time searching out the president’s budget cuts. Nobody has listened to the president in the 23 years that I’ve been here. Congress doesn’t pay attention to the president’s budget exercise. I don’t know why we put him through that. That’s all it is. Congress holds the purse strings.”

Enzi’s right.

About 70 percent of all federal money is “mandatory,” required spending for entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Congress switched all of those programs onto automatic pilot years ago. The money simply has flowed out the door depending on need or eligibility. The remaining 30 percent of federal money would constitute the “live ammo” mentioned earlier.

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“Once a program is approved in the mandatory category, that spending is never voted on again,” Enzi observed. “Nothing should be mandatory that doesn’t have a source of revenue that is monetarily sufficient to fund it into the future.”

The rest of the money would be “discretionary.” That’s because Congress has “discretion” over such spending. This section of federal spending constitutes the 12 annual appropriations bills which run the federal government. And, even as the House and Senate are wading through the “budget” machinations, the appropriations cycle to keep the government funded past Sept. 30 is starting now.

Lawmakers have railed against the explosion of debt, but few have been willing to touch entitlement spending or the military. That has accounted for about 86 percent of all federal spending combined. And, this is why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently projected the annual budget deficit – the difference between what the U.S. takes in and spends – to exceed $1 trillion this year. That number is expected to jump to an average of $1.3 trillion annually over the next decade. This would mean total federal debt could spike to $31.4 trillion by 2030.

Still, in contrast to Yarmuth, Enzi said he will indeed prepare a budget this year – despite no hearing. And, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a dim view of putting any budget prepped by Enzi on the floor this year.

“I can’t imagine that we could reach an agreement on a budget with this particular House of Representatives,” McConnell said. “We’ve got the [spending] caps deal in place. We negotiated it last year. It’s good for the second year.”

Enzi highlighted why the sides tended to weaponize budgets against lawmakers from across the aisle.

“It turns into a diatribe against the president,” Enzi said. He called Yarmuth’s hearing with Vought “a chance for the House to ask loaded, venomous questions of the director. The budget process is not working.”

And, sure enough, many retreated to their corners at the House hearing Wednesday.

“What we have been subjected to this morning is an Orwellian presentation that showcases double-speak,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Ct., thundered.

Yet, little that Trump proposed in his budget had any chance of becoming law. In fact, it’s rare for the House or Senate to even take a vote on the president’s “budget” – unless the president’s opponents were to orchestrate such a roll call for political theatrics.

The budget process is mostly just stagecraft, and that’s why there’s little energy to concretely address deficits and the debt.

But, is anyone willing to really address the deficits and debt in concrete terms now?

“Debt doesn’t seem to matter as much right now,” Yarmuth said. “The size of the debt does not poll well.”

Republicans weaponized spending and the debt against congressional Democrats and Obama in 2010. This spurred the Tea Party into action and propelled Republicans to a majority in the House. Trump had campaigned on eliminating the debt. His budget outline called for balance in 15 years – if the economy maintained three-percent growth. But, Congress truly has held control of spending.

After the release of the president’s budget, questions emerged as to whether congressional Republicans would ditch the two-year spending accord in favor of toplines called for by the president. But, Fox News is told there’s no appetite by key Republicans to discard that agreement.

Democrats in Congress were willing to forge a deal last year with Republicans and the Trump administration – and vice versa – because all parties agreed to spend more. Republicans got a little more for defense. And, Democrats and many Republicans were happy because there was more for “non-defense discretionary” spending in the 2019 budget package.

One Republican source told Fox News that members of the party were surprised the Trump administration didn’t ask for more than $746 billion for defense – since they intended to bypass Congress and shift money from various military accounts to pay for the border wall.

“There is no spending constraint,” Enzi said on the floor. “When the two chambers of Congress are of opposite majorities, there’s little chance for agreement, I can assure you.”

Based on last year’s compact, the sides only have spent more.

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That’s why Enzi, retiring from Congress next January after four terms in the Senate, lamented the state of affairs in his Senate floor speech.

“I don’t get invited to speak many places,” he said. “It’s kind of depressing.”