Dems should pitch budget

Shockwaves rippled through Washington this week when the Senate Budget Committee chairman announced he would propose an annual budget resolution and hold a committee vote on it. Gasp! Yet the split-second spasm of regular order soon gave way to paralysis when Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) decided that governing was indeed too difficult in an election year.

“This is the wrong time to vote in committee; this is the wrong time to vote on the floor,” Conrad said Tuesday. “I don’t think we will be prepared to vote before the election.”

Senate Democrats haven’t been prepared to vote on an annual budget since they passed their last one in 2009, and Conrad admitted he would disappoint his Democratic colleagues who were hoping, at long last, to support an actual blueprint for deficit reduction. Conrad decided, in lieu of a budget, that he would hold a markup of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission report, a plan that was not only ignored by President Obama — who established the commission — but by the Congress as well, garnering only 38 votes in the House last month.  

“My belief is we have to take this time to do the homework to be ready to act when the time is right,” Conrad said at his hearing of the plan Wednesday. A respected legislator who is retiring at the end of the year, Conrad is clearly hoping that in between campaigning to hold or retake power, lawmakers are preparing to make consequential compromises to finally fend off a fiscal crisis. They are not, and hearings on Bowles-Simpson at this point are a joke.

In addition to Bowles-Simpson, those lawmakers even remotely interested in genuine deficit reduction are now well-acquainted with numerous plans. They have studied Bowles-Simpson, a plan by the Gang of Six and another by the Gang of 12. There was also one from the Biden commission, led by the vice president. Then there were unprecedented negotiations between the president and House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio) that fell short of a grand bargain and produced a disappointing debt deal that punted everything to a supercommittee. That move, of course, ended in spectacular failure last November.

Everyone knows the numbers and the math; it’s the political will they can’t identify. A historic fiscal apocalypse now looms at year’s end — the Bush tax cuts will expire, the payroll tax cut will expire, the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will expire, the estate tax will expire, unemployment insurance will expire, the Medicare doc-fix will expire and more than $1 trillion in spending cuts will kick in, bringing the economy to the brink with Congress proposing to solve it all in several weeks during the lame-duck session between the election and Christmas.

Most Democrats and Republicans, naturally, are hoping the leverage they win in the election will determine the outcome. Doing homework just isn’t on the docket right now. But before everybody sits down to negotiate in December, they should stand up — and Conrad should write a budget that cuts the deficit, if that is what he supports. Democratic senators of like minds should have the chance to vote on it. 

House Republicans, whose record of governing in the 112th Congress is dismally unpopular with voters, have backed a budget based on their principles and are willing to pay a potentially hefty political price for it. For the second year in a row, they have supported a controversial budget drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year MORE (R-Wis.) that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is criticizing as so disproportionately punishing to the poor, it fails to meet the church’s “moral criteria” regarding protecting the “poor and vulnerable.”

The Ryan plan won’t become law, and neither would a Conrad budget, but that’s no excuse for the Democrats not to produce one.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.