Budget Busters

House Republican leaders twisted the rules -- and some arms -- to get their way last week on Capitol Hill.

Democrats had proposed a motion instructing budget conferees to adopt pay-as-you-go rules, which would have required lawmakers to make budget cuts to offset any additional spending increases or tax cuts, something the Senate had already approved. Top House Republicans, though, opposed such offsets for tax cuts, and President Bush apparently shares that view.

So a five-minute House vote on Tuesday went on for 28 minutes. Every Democrat voted for the motion, and 11 Republicans joined them. Eight other Republicans also supported the motion, but then party leaders got them to change their minds after the five minutes were up. The bill failed in a 209-to-209 vote. (A simple majority -- or, in this case, 210 votes -- was required to pass the motion.) The first lawmaker to fall was Arizona Representative Rick Renzi, a Republican freshman who's facing a challenge from Paul Babbitt, brother of former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said, “Pay-as-you-go rules do not preclude tax cuts; they simply require us to pay for them. But House Republicans refused.” Hoyer noted that Republicans adopted a budget that will increase the deficit. So much for the party that's supposed to be fiscally responsible.

The budget is in conference now, so there's still hope that the Senate can prevail in exercising some needed fiscal discipline. Offsetting spending increases and tax cuts requires “tough budget choices,” as Hoyer said. By voting against offsets, Republicans showed that even though they say they want to curb the rise in spending, they don't seem all that interested in actually doing anything about it. It's not as though Republicans in a campaign year are suddenly going to turn against the tax cuts that have served their base so well.

Worse still, the GOP budgets ignore fiscal realities. While the Congressional Budget Office makes projections for 10 years, the White House and congressional budgets stop at five -- conveniently just after Bush would leave office if he wins a second term, so voters can't tell the real damage he's done. As the House Budget Committee's ranking representative, John Spratt of South Carolina, pointed out during the initial meeting of the budget-resolution conference on Wednesday, costs for supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan beyond next year aren't included in the GOP budgets, which raises questions about whether Republicans will just abandon U.S. efforts in those places or whether they're trying to hide costs the public would balk at.

The budget isn't law; rather, it's a road map for fiscal legislation. Still, there was some good news from the budget vote. When the House initially voted on the budget resolution on March 25, every Democrat voted against the GOP proposal. A total of 194 Democrats, two more than last year, voted for the Democratic plan, according to Hoyer. “This is the largest show of support for the Democratic budget since Republicans took control of the House in 1994,” he said.

It's good to see Democrats finally recognizing the importance of party unity, especially in the House. In a majority-ruled chamber, the odds are stacked against the minority party anyway; Democrats don't need to do anything to make the GOP's job easier. It's by offering a clear contrast to voters this fall, rather than a muddled middle position, that Democrats will be most successful at the polls. After all, why buy an imitation when you can have the real thing?

The task now is for Democrats to remain resolute on the pay-as-you-go issue, and to think about long-term budget implications, not just what's convenient for lawmakers in an election year. The budget has gone from a projected $5.6 trillion surplus to a projected $2.9 trillion deficit in three years. As Spratt said at the March 31 budget conference, “Folly has been described as doing the same thing but expecting different results. … But the president's budget and the resolutions passed by the House and the Senate persist down the same path, and they are bound to reap the same results: more deficits, more debt, and more debt service.”

Democrats need to remind voters that when it comes to being responsible with taxpayers' money, they're doing a much better job of it these days than Republicans are. Spending money to improve homeland security after September 11 and to fight the war on terrorism was necessary, but spending money to invade Iraq and pass two major tax cuts was not. The least Republicans can do is offset tax cuts in the budget. If Democrats can't convince Republicans of that in conference, hopefully voters will do so this fall.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.