Budget Gridlock Is a Shameful Legacy for Bush and Many Others

Posted December 11, 2007 at 1:56pm

The membership of the Congressional Problem Solving Caucus continues to show signs of shrinking, with the departures ahead of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and now Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), both strong conservatives who wanted to work across party lines. Perhaps a part of the reason McCrery is hanging it up now is that he would prefer to work a deal with his friend Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) on the alternative minimum tax — one that would be fiscally responsible, which means revenue neutral, instead of abandoning “pay-as-you-go” rules and responsibility, as most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate want to do. Who wants to keep getting stuck in the middle, wanting to solve problems while your colleagues want to throw grenades and score points instead?

[IMGCAP(1)]The AMT embarrassment, which includes nearly all Senate Democrats along with most Republicans in both chambers, and surely includes the president and White House as well, is another awful instance of bad politics crowding out policy in the national interest. In this case, let me single out one flagrant offender among many: Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). When the Senate found itself forced to pass another one-year Band-Aid on the AMT with no revenue offsets, The Washington Post quoted Thune as “almost gleeful.”

“They had painted themselves into a corner,” he said. “That’s a huge concession on their part, completely repudiating one of their core principles.”

Note the quotation: one of their core principles. In other words, PAYGO, replacing lost revenue with comparable revenue to avoid ballooning deficits, is not one of Thune’s core principles. He prefers a core principle that basically says, screw our children and grandchildren, we are going to drain our federal revenues while letting spending grow, and leave the bills to them.

Thune, of course, has been a leader in pressing for passage of the farm bill, which is an outrageously profligate waste of taxpayer dollars, spending billions to subsidize big corporate farms and rich people doing well in today’s commodity marketplace, and ignoring the sensible kind of bipartisan reforms that would both save money and make better agricultural policy. He also voted to override the president’s veto of the water projects bill and spend, spend, spend on those earmarks. Does this make him a bigger hypocrite than many or most of his colleagues? No. He is the designated villain here because of his glee at the political damage caused to the majority Democrats — no matter what the fiscal damage.

Republicans had many opportunities to fix the AMT when they were in the majority, and instead chose their own year-to-year Band-Aids, because they did not want to tell the American people the truth about the long-term budget drain the fix would entail. That was the same reason they pulled a bait and switch on the big package of tax cuts, deliberately having them all expire after 10 years to mask the costs, then trying to extend them by calling inaction a tax increase. Of course, taxes remain the one hole card Republicans have to play in the coming election. But at some point, the need for an honest debate about how we are going to pay for the government — which members of both parties enthusiastically and repeatedly vote to sustain — should overwhelm the need for naked political advantage when any attempt to find fiscal balance emerges.

To be sure, Democrats characteristically mishandled the issue of the AMT from the get-go, virtually ensuring a showdown that they would lose, with the Senate Democrats cravenly caving on PAYGO and an offset without putting up any serious fight. Kudos to the Blue Dogs and their allies for trying hard to stick to principle, and shame on their Senate colleagues for letting them hang out to dry.

Now throw into the mix the even more outrageous and irresponsible behavior of the president on the appropriations bills — vowing to veto the latest version of a bipartisan compromise before it was accomplished, showing no interest in working in divided government across party lines, drawing lines in the sand over $11 billion out of a $3 trillion budget.

Of course, $11 billion is real money, but this has nothing to do with the numbers or with fiscal responsibility — if it did, the president would have vetoed dozens of spending bills before this year, instead of zero (in fact, there was not even one threat of veto before this year!). And if the president wanted an honest debate on budgeting, he would insist on an honest accounting of defense and war costs, instead of repeatedly using the back door of emergency and supplemental appropriations to mask the burdens.

The refusal to deal has many costs, but right at the top is the cost of drift and erosion in government from perpetual continuing resolutions. Whether one operates in the private or public sector, running a program or agency without a budget, trying to figure out what you can and cannot do, who you can or cannot hire (or fire), limiting every program no matter the circumstances or events to last year’s numbers — and then spending like drunken sailors in the final months of the fiscal year if and when the issues get resolved so that you are not left with unspent funds and a cut the following year — is a formula for mediocre, inefficient or simply bad policy and administration. It takes a serious toll on people and on national needs.

Everybody in every agency needs some level of continuity and certainty to do their jobs. Congress — make that the Senate — for years has failed to come close to passing appropriations bills on time, and this Congress, under the Democrats, is no exception. But it is still possible to get the issues resolved within weeks of the start of the fiscal year.

Some so-called fiscal conservatives say they are happy to stay on continuing resolution autopilot because it reduces government spending via inaction. But it is neither fiscally nor morally responsible. By deliberately fomenting gridlock and conflict to score political points, the president, his budget director and his chief of staff, who was a budget director, are behaving shamefully in their role as stewards of government. What a legacy to leave!

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.