Last week, the House of Representatives passed what is known as The Ryan Budget (dun-dun-DUUUNNNN). If the media are to be believed, this document is loaded with tax breaks for the wealthy, boots for kicking the poor over cliffs, and armies of people who will come mock your kittens for being cute. Or something.
What we all need to realize is that the Ryan Budget – so-named because Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the chair of the Budget Committee in the House – is nothing more than a proposal. The same can be said of Senator Patty Murray’s (D-WA) budget that will soon come to a vote in the Senate. These are just first steps in a process. I wrote about how budgeting works in my personal blog a while back:
The budget has to come first. In a normal year, the President, with input from all the federal agencies, creates a budget proposal that details what he thinks the government should be doing and how much he thinks they need to spend to do it. He presents that to the House and Senate and they laugh, throw it over their shoulders and write their own versions of a budget based on their own set of ideas and priorities. The House releases its version first (that may be a hard and fast rule or tradition, I can’t remember right now). It’s usually radically different than the President’s version and filled with incredibly partisan concepts specific to the party in leadership at the time. The Senate then looks down their snooty noses at the House version and writes a third version of the budget which usually looks totally grounded in reality compared to whatever the House proposed.
Then there’s a flurry of hearings, votes, speeches, press conferences, and arguments on the two different versions. Eventually, the two chambers figure out a compromise that everyone can live with and also complain about on TV. That’s called the Budget Resolution.
These proposals coming out of the Budget Committees are essentially party platform documents. They don’t have the force of law behind them. Moreover, they propose things that are completely out of the Budget Committee’s jurisdiction. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act? The Budget Committee can’t do that. Changing the structure of Medicare? The Budget Committee can’t do that. Closing tax loopholes? Can’t do that either. What the Budget Committee can do is assign revenues for expenditures. That’s it. That’s all. Any suggestions of actual policy are fanciful reflections of particular ideologies.
This is not to say that there’s no value at all to the budget proposals. On the contrary, we should all be psyched that they’re happening since it’s the first time since 2009 that the Senate has deigned to write a proposal at all. (The fact the the White House hasn’t submitted a proposal yet is troubling and confusing but the White House proposal is not necessary to the process nor does the President sign a budget resolution passed by Congress.) The movement on a true budget resolution is one of the most optimistic signs of life from our do-nothing legislature in years.
If they do manage to pass a resolution through regular process, we might get to see the second half of spending allocations happen as well. There hasn’t been a full appropriations process since 2009 either. Usually the appropriations committees take the numbers in the budget and divvy them out to different agencies. But because they’re chickenshit politicians who are afraid to admit they spend money for any reason, rather than pass appropriations through regular order, they have passed a series of short-term stop-gap spending measures known as Continuing Resolutions. That’s a fancy way of saying they pass laws that allow spending to continue so the government doesn’t have to shut down. Congress has passed about eight of these since 2010, many lasting only a few months and progressively cutting spending. If you think leaving agencies with no idea how much money they’ll have and for how long they’ll have it is extremely poor management, you’re right. No one I know in a federal job has felt secure in planning more than a few weeks out in years.
I’ve been angry about the utter failure of Congress to pass either a budget or regular appropriations since they stop doing them. I think it’s a complete dereliction of their most fundamental duties. They are there to set spending for the government. That is their job. If they feel like they can’t do it and still get elected, then they need to step aside and let more courageous souls take the reins. I’m cautiously optimistic that this year will be different but I won’t be surprised if it’s not.