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It’s not the Greatest Show on Earth, but the federal budget is definitely the most expensive circus in the world. All the more so this year, thanks to some nifty new tricks from ringleader Sen. Tom Daschle (D - S.D.).
Every year, Congress is required to pass an overall plan for U.S. government spending, known as a budget resolution. The budget was due this year on April 15, 2002, and to meet this deadline, President Bush offered his budget plan last February. And the House of Representatives passed its budget in March.
Now it’s almost October, but for the first time since 1974, the Senate has not passed a budget. And they’re not about to.
No budget? Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader, is the magician running the do-nothing Senate. Taking a page from David Blaine, he’s put the U.S. government’s fiscal planning process on some serious ice.
Why would Daschle refuse to pass a budget? Big Spenders like Daschle find it next to impossible to make budget plans that don’t end up promising the moon to every special interest group. It’s just too much fun spending our money.
That’s why America is supposed to have a spending process that starts with overall budget resolutions. These budgets force everyone to look at the big picture, and prioritize among all the different competing interests. Otherwise, the spending process devolves into a disorderly mass of greedy porkers wallowing at the feeding trough. That’s what are also known as appropriations bills—they are very messy, and very expensive. Budget resolutions are a good government effort to bring some order and perspective to this annual frenzy.
The truly cynical thing is that the Big Spenders in Washington don’t want an organized budget process. They’d rather hand out the cash program by program, and never make any tough choices. That’s why the Senate’s failure to even vote on a budget resolution is not “gridlock”—rather, it is a deliberate strategy to spend more money.
What’s more, by not offering his own plan, Daschle gains a political advantage. He can just sit back and attack ongoing GOP efforts to produce any budget that makes tough trade-offs. The GOP can’t counterattack; Daschle knows his opponents can’t hit what they can’t see.
Not that there is any evidence that, at the moment, the GOP is up to the task of making tough choices on the budget, either. The current budget situation is a fight between those who want to spend like mad and those who want to spend like crazy. Fiscal discipline went out the window—and it’s not just from needed 9/11 security spending.
For example, the first couple of (less controversial) appropriations bill from the House already break the bank. The Treasury & Postal Appropriations bill (H.R. 5120) goes $537 billion over the president’s budget, and the Interior Appropriations bill blows out the president’s plan by $700 million. Rest assured these bills won’t get smaller once the Senate is done with them.
How much damage is Daschle’s dodge going to cause? The Washington Post reports a difference of over $9 billion between House and Senate Appropriations. That $9 billion dollar end-run is possible because of Daschle’s failure to produce a Senate budget. Not too shabby.
The only real hope here is for President Bush to discover his veto pen.
But there’s a final trick in Daschle’s bag. The government’s new fiscal year begins on October 1st. Failure to pass a budget and the 13 appropriations bills on time means that the government will shut down unless Congress passes temporary spending measures. This is major pressure on Congress, and it builds into an explosion of late-night debates and huge spending bills of unknown content. To be fair, Congress has been busier than usual this year, passing significant bills on corporate reform and homeland security. But there’s still no excuse for this level of irresponsibility.
Congress wants to adjourn in October so incumbents can go home and campaign before the November election. It’s increasingly likely that the heavy-lifting on the budget won’t happen until a “lame-duck” session in late November or December. That means even less accountability, and the likelihood of terrible spending votes by recent election losers. Or, both sides may punt everything until next March by just passing temporary spending bills.
The pressure is on, the illusion is perfect. Combine no Senate budget resolution, the threat the government will shut down, and election year politics, and Daschle’s trap is set. The only escape for Congress (and the president) will be lots of unplanned new spending. Fellow taxpayers, hide your wallets now; Tom Daschle’s got a clever plan to make them disappear.