Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi and J.K. Rowling probably do not have a lot in common. But one thing they both excel at is conjuring up alternative worlds, though one successfully markets their work as fiction while the other actually puts on a pretense that their writing is factual. Tonight, as the Senate completes its consideration of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Resolution, Sen. Enzi gets to put his fictional world on display and play the role of headmaster of Hogwarts during vote-a-rama that will comprise of a ton of votes on amendments that have no effect to a budget resolution that also has no effect (with one key and potentially expensive exception).
Congressional budget writing is akin to sudoku. The goal is to insert numbers where they fit within the rules of the game.But instead of placing all 10 digits in each row, the numbers just have to match Republican talking points of cutting taxes and balancing the budget. There are no policies that align with the spending numbers. There’s not even an intention to try to reach the goals. They are simply conjured up to fit a narrative and treated with legitimacy. It is a legitimate farce.
To understand why the budget resolution is fictional, you only need to know that the budget is not a law and therefore has no binding force. Sure, it sets certain budget rules for Congress that can trigger a point of order if violated…which can then be waived by the same number of votes that are required to pass the bill anyways. Hardly a disciplining action.
What it lacks in substance it makes up for in embellishment and drama. Since it has no binding force, it means that the Budget Committee can put out glowing talking points such asthese:
“The FY 2018 Budget Resolution:
PROVIDES a path to balance by restraining federal spending, reducing tax burdens, and boosting economic growth.
REDUCES spending by $5.1 trillion.
PROVIDES an on-budget surplus of $197 billion in 2027 as a result of fiscal constraint and economic growth.”
The Budget Resolution does say this. But the Budget Resolution does not do this. The Budget Resolution is a resolution, lawmakers have to pass laws to reach these budget goals. Just two years ago, the Republicans passed a Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution that would place the budget on a path to balance within 10 years. According to the FY2016 Budget Resolution, this year’s deficit would be $83 billion and only a few years away from a budget surplus. Instead, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just reported that this year’s deficit was $668 billion and is on its way up to $1.3 trillion.
The problem is that the Republican members that vote for a budget resolution that purports to be a “path to balance” only support it as a political platform, not as a governing position. They want to be known as fiscally responsible, without being responsible for getting there.
Democrats are in on the farce too. Tonight, there will be an extended round of voting on amendments to the budget resolution – amendments for the most part that will have no practical effect on our nation’s policies. Democrats will pretend that the Republicans actually mean what they say and decry the non-specific cuts embedded in the budget resolution that will never come to fruition. They will offer a litany of amendments in the form of “deficit-neutral reserve funds” to message on the unfairness of these cuts to try to gain an edge for next year’s elections. But, of the $5.1 trillion in proposed spending reductions, the Budget Resolution only calls for $1 billion to be actionable without Democrat support. That is the equivalent to 2 cents out of $100.
In truth, the only practical implication of the Budget Resolution is for Republicans to start a special process called reconciliation that will allow them to pass a tax reform bill with only a simple majority in the Senate rather than the typical 60. The rest is just fictional window dressing around a very real plan to potentially increase the debt by $1.5 trillion via tax reform – quite the opposite direction from the path to balance.
The United States Senate will put on an act tonight that may be fun for some and maddening for others, but it is a process that makes a mockery of our government. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that our budget process is broken. There are several ideas out there that can improve it. One of them would be to make the budget statutory, requiring a presidential signature and making it binding. Instead of having partisan, political documents passed only to be followed by real budget agreements negotiated behind closed doors later on – this would require an agreement on the real numbers early in the process. It would also require everyone to come to the table to reckon with the very real budget problems that our nation is facing rather than trying to score political points.
Our nation’s fiscal problems are serious and will have major consequences for the prosperity of the next generation. They will be met tonight with an equally unserious show of politics and cynicism. Tonight, they are all Slytherin.