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Is Budget Jockeying Simply Horsing Around?

As Congress approaches the floating deadline for a final debt limit deal, it has engaged in curious sideshows that leave people wondering just how serious it is about the country’s fiscal plight.

I call these stunts two-trick pony acts: One trick involves the Congressional budget resolution, and the other involves the debt ceiling.

As the parties jockey for position, their antics provide entertaining diversions from what really matters. But do they serve any useful purpose? Or are they just horseplay?

In posing these questions one should keep in mind that politics, which propels our system, is simply another form of gamesmanship to determine winners and losers. However, when you’re playing with other people’s money and the stakes are high, you better choose your tactics wisely or you will be the ultimate loser.

This year’s budget process began after Congress finally completed last year’s budget in early April — more than six months late.

Two days later, the House Budget Committee reported its fiscal 2012 concurrent budget resolution. The House first rejected four substitute budgets by the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Republican Study Committee and the Democratic Caucus (the Blue Dog Coalition withdrew its substitute).

It then adopted the committee Republican budget, the Ryan plan, after Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), with its Medicare-restructuring assumptions.

The Senate, on the other hand, was in no rush to budget seriously.

Although the Senate Budget Committee has yet to report a resolution, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was anxious to put the House-passed budget to a vote the day after Democrat Kathy Hochul won a surprising special election victory in New York’s 26th Congressional district by running against Ryan’s Medicare plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had no problem staging that vote so long as the president’s budget was also considered.

This would not be the first time a president’s budget was used as a foil by the opposition party to embarrass the president’s party. In 1987, House Budget Chairman William Gray (D-Pa.) offered President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal 1988 budget as a substitute. It garnered just 27 votes. 

After five hours of debate May 25, the Senate rejected a motion, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), to consider President Barack Obama’s budget, 0-97, as well as a motion, pushed by Reid, to consider the House GOP budget, 40-57.

Ironically, on May 24, Reid criticized as “irresponsible” the House Republicans’ plan to vote on a debt limit bill that “they know is going to fail” (one could almost hear the pot and kettle slinging epithets at each other).

The measure was called up May 31 by its sponsor, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), even though he opposed the bill and his committee had not reported it.

Republicans were careful to schedule the debt vote after the stock market had closed for the day, and they prepped Wall Street on the symbolic nature of the vote. The Dow Jones Industrial Average still took a 280-point plunge the next day, reportedly because of unrelated economic news.

The debt legislation was clearly designed to die: It was considered under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote for passage. That precaution proved unnecessary as all Republicans voted against it and only 97 Democrats voted in favor (with seven voting “present”), even though 114 had earlier signed a letter to the Speaker urging such a clean vote.

While it is easy to dismiss the Senate votes on the Ryan and Obama budgets and the House vote on a free-standing debt limit bill as clever political stunts designed to embarrass the other party, the staged events did serve other purposes.

The Senate Majority Leader’s push for a vote on the House GOP budget resolution was obviously aimed at further highlighting and exploiting what Democrats hope to sell to voters as a radical attempt by Republicans to privatize Medicare. Yet it was also an early signal to House Republicans that their budget plans have no traction in the Senate, and negotiations will be necessary if the two chambers are to end up on the same budget page.

The vote on the president’s budget was designed to impress on him the need to get more serious about deficit reduction: He was still missing in action on entitlement reforms.

The House debt limit vote not only signaled to the president that the separate vote on the debt limit increase he had urged was not a viable option, but it also gave House tea party Republicans an early chance to forcefully register their opposition to raising the debt limit without accompanying spending reductions.

The debt vote did help refocus attention on the importance of the bipartisan deficit reduction negotiations taking place under Vice President Joseph Biden. The two-trick pony acts played an instructive lead-up role to that main event.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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