Budget Blues

by John Lawrence

Americans view April 15th with a certain degree of dread as they must cough up the taxes they owe the government. But for Members of Congress, April 15th has another significance – the day by which the Congress is supposed to finalize the annual budget. It is a deadline generally honored in the breach.

Since enactment of the Budget Control and Impoundment Act in 1974 – one of the signal efforts of reformers to claw back power usurped to the imperial presidency – Congress has actually met the deadline only 6 times. Even when a resolution is cobbled together weeks late, it has the effect of delaying other crucial business, especially Appropriations legislation, which is why members of the spending committee have long detested the budget process. Former Appropriations chairman David Obey has made no effort to disguise his contempt. “Nobody went to God to ask him to add four months to the calendar” at the beginning of the year to accommodate the budget process, Obey has complained. Moreover, since budgets have evolved from a congressional statement to contrast with the White House’s budget into a representation of respective party positions on spending, deficits and taxes, scholars have argued that the 1974 law helped usher in the era of polarized politics that now overwhelms much of American government.

This year was going to be different because Obey’s Wisconsin colleague, Paul Ryan, is now Speaker and able to exercise his formidable power to ensure that the budget process moves expeditiously. Ryan knows how that is supposed to occur since he was chairman of the Budget Committee for four years, as well as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Moreover, the two year budget and spending agreement that Ryan, as the freshly minted Speaker, concocted with President Obama and Democrats last December should have made this year’s blueprint a slam dunk success.

But April 15th will come and go this week with no budget, largely because Ryan, as predicted, has confronted the very same obstinate sub-caucus of Republican hardliners that bedeviled John Boehner and drove him from the Speaker’s chair. Having opposed December’s two-year agreement for lifting sequestration spending caps on domestic, as well as defense, spending (without which neither Obama nor congressional Democrats would have gone near it), Freedom Caucus absolutists now refuse to rubber-stamp its higher spending levels and insist that Ryan walk back the December deal, which would make him look foolish. Since Democrats cannot be expected to vote for the GOP budget as they will for real spending measures when needed to keep government functioning, Ryan needs to cobble together 218 Republicans, a task which has proven difficult to impossible on spending-deficit-debt ceiling legislation since Republicans resumed control of the House in 2011.

There are consequences to this budget impasse, which CNN has termed “an embarrassing setback [and] … big political black eye for Ryan and his top lieutenants.” Absence of a budget resolution will likely delay work on appropriations bills almost certainly beyond the September 30th end of FY2016, necessitating a Continuing Resolution or two to keep the government open. Unlike past years, the threat of a government shutdown if such a CR does not pass doesn’t work in 2016 because such an action weeks before a national election would be suicidal. Responsibility for the last shutdown orchestrated by the hard Right fell almost entirely on Republicans, causing the party’s approval to crater in public opinion — not a scenario any sane politician wants to replicate while voters are thinking about the election.

Moreover, the lack of a budget resolution agreement with the Senate rules out a reconciliation bill that could contain changes to Obama and Democratic priorities, such as modifications to the Affordable Care Act or alterations of Obama executive orders, which might serve as useful campaign positioning for Republicans. True, Obama would veto any such changes, as he did last year, but the messaging opportunity is not without value in the election season.

The Freedom Caucus does not see any particular downside to tripping up Ryan or missing the deadlines. North Carolina’s Rep. Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus hardliner, praised Ryan for listening to his voluble absolutists without imposing the kind of pressure Boehner had been so reluctant to employ against party dissidents. “In times in the past, there would have been a forced vote,” Meadows said. “And because there is not a consensus from the bottom up, he has not done that.” Boehner’s example should prove a warning to Ryan: accommodating the hardliners on the bottom only encourages further intransigence.

The missed budget deadline is symptomatic of much bigger problems for Ryan and Republicans. The chronic discord within the GOP Caucus and the unwillingness (or inability) of the Speaker to cobble together a functioning majority presents real challenges to any progress on long-delayed policies by the House. One can hardly imagine a comprehensive tax reform bill, let alone needed legislation on economic revitalization, infrastructure reconstruction, climate change or national security making it through a Congress where the majority leadership cannot count on support from its own members, and lacks the fortitude, skills or wisdom to persuade its own members to act – on behalf of the party’s credibility if not the country’s best interests.

Moreover, the inflexibility of the Freedom Caucus faction will leave Ryan with little alternative other than once again cutting deals with House Democrats to avoid shutdowns and other perilous cliffs. Those inevitable acts of political pragmatism will only exacerbate the frustration of hardliners who rose up against Boehner for his repeated deals with Democrats, who provided the votes Freedom Caucus conservatives refused to provide. To make matters worse, Nancy Pelosi once again will have the upper hand, insisting that no offensive riders be attached to CRs or other “must pass” bills, a condition that drives the irreconcilables into a frenzy against the alleged collaborationists in their own leadership.

So this April 15th brings a painful message of both policy and strategic failure for Paul Ryan and his Republican majority, with little prospects for improvement in the months to come. One might wonder why the accidental Speaker was so quick to definitively close the door on the last stagecoach out of Dodge, an escape to the “relative calm” of the White House, or at least a presidential nomination that like his invitation to the speakership, might be offered on a silver platter.

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