Table is set for deal on budget

Budgets are about priorities. They list what we care about, and in dollar amounts, they quantify how much we care. The budget passed out of the Senate Budget Committee that I supported makes it clear we care about our seniors, our soldiers and our children. But we also care about fiscal responsibility, as well as jobs and the economy, because unless we grow this recovery into a robust comeback, all the things we hold dear are going to be put in jeopardy. We aren’t going to be able to keep our commitments to seniors, give our military what it needs or invest in our children if we slip back into recession. The risk of an economic slowdown shapes our budget from beginning to end.

Keeping the economy rolling is one of the main reasons we did a budget in the first place. Without certainty, businesses can’t plan with any confidence, and if they can’t plan they can’t grow. For too long we have operated without a plan, lurching from crisis to crisis. Those repeated fire drills have increased uncertainty and spooked investors as well as Main Street businesses.

Our budget recognizes that as the global economy evolves, American workers will require new skills in order to lead the 21st-century workforce. I supported a bipartisan amendment that promotes cutting-edge manufacturing initiatives in the United States to help universities and technical colleges collaborate on advanced manufacturing opportunities. 

Now, let me be clear: the budget reported out last week does cut spending. We have $975 billion in cuts across the government over the next 10 years. Every program is going to face scrutiny and need to show results. But these cuts are smaller than the sequester on the discretionary spending side. By spreading these cuts across discretionary and mandatory accounts, we get more balanced deficit reduction with cuts that aren’t so severe that they compromise our future. 

And when it comes to revenue, the good news is that there is actually broad agreement on half the solution. Both parties agree that we need to close loopholes and eliminate the rampant growth of tax expenditures. Since the last major overhaul of the tax code, in 1986, the cost of special loopholes and tax breaks has doubled (in real terms) to more than $1 trillion a year. Even worse, these provisions make the code needlessly complicated and make doing taxes an expensive headache. That needs to stop. Businesses should be investing in new assets, not tax preparation. We need to simplify the code.

Where the sides differ is on what to do with the money raised from closing those loopholes. The budget I supported is based upon the idea that if we are concerned about the deficit, then this new money should be used to get our budget closer to balance. In Maine, we believe that if you are in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging. The Ryan budget also wants to close loopholes in the code, but it would use the new revenues for a huge new tax cut — which, incidentally, would disproportionately benefit the wealthy. If deficit reduction is the primary goal, it just seems to me that new revenues should go there, not a new round of cuts. 

But none of these ideas and increased certainty will ever happen if we don’t get an agreement that attains bipartisan support. In our markup, I was surprised by the amount of bipartisanship and agreement bubbling just under the surface. There were clearly some areas that were of interest to both sides as potential points of agreement — even if neither side was prepared to declare a compromise just yet. While so far the budget process has been a standard partisan exercise, I think many of us left the markup feeling that we had reason to be optimistic that maybe, just maybe, that can change. If we are able to settle on a budget this year that squarely confronts our chronic deficits, we can get out of the cliffs, ceilings and sequesters business and get on to the host of other issues just around the corner.

From what I hear in Maine, folks are less concerned about the particulars than about whether we can come together at all. By moving a budget out of committee this week for the first time in four years, we have at least made a start, and the table is set for a deal.

No promises, but there are some green shoots of progress. We just have to tend them.

King is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.