Battle of the Budgets

For the next year, at least, Republicans will have one less talking point to turn to when they want to hit Democrats on the budget. Over the weekend, Senate Democrats came together to pass their first budget since 2009, a comprehensive package that calls for additional stimulus and modest deficit reduction, stretched over the next ten years. Under Senate rules, lawmakers can’t filibuster a budget resolution, allowing Democrats to pass it by a vote of 50 to 49, with four Democrats—Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Max Baucus of Montana—voting against the bill.

Unlike the House budget—crafted by Republican Paul Ryan—the Senate plan isn’t meant to restructure the federal government or redefine its obligations. Nor does it try to balance the budget or order dramatic and controversial changes to the tax code. Instead, it’s a modest package responsive to the economic needs of the moment. It includes $100 billion in immediate infrastructure spending to bolster the economy, and calls for new taxes to raise $975 billion over the next decade.

This is important. Pace Republicans, who insist on debt reduction as a matter of course—“Where there can be no honest disagreement is the need to change our nation’s debt course,” said Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the budget committee—Senate Democrats are more concerned with protecting the still-fragile recovery. And to that end, they avoid significant short-term deficit reduction; in addition to new stimulus, the Democratic budget repeals the sequester.

Overall, the Senate plan would leave the government with a $566 billion annual deficit in ten years, with $5.2 trillion in additional debt. In terms of both debt reduction and the role of government, it’s much less ambitious than either the Ryan plan or the budget unveiled by House progressives, which stands as the actual left-wing alternative in this debate. The progressive budget, among other things, raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans, institutes a cap-and-trade regime, reduces military spending, and plows new spending into clean energy ($156 billion), education and social services ($230 billion), programs for income security ($312 billion), and infrastructure ($1 trillion, a tenfold increase over the Senate budget).

Given the ideological distance between the House and Senate budgets, there’s no real chance Congress will agree on spending levels for the next year. But that’s expected—these budgets are meant to define priorities, and lay the groundwork for the next round of election-year battles. It’s why, before passing the Senate budget, lawmakers took votes on a wide array of amendments, registering their symbolic assent (or disapproval) for a variety of proposals, from Obamacare’s medical device tax (a majority opposed) to construction of the Keystone pipeline (a majority of senators, 62, voted in favor).

But if budgets are meant to present ideological priorities, the disparity between the two sides is striking. The Democratic budget is utterly mainstream. It repeals an unpopular law (the sequester), maintains funding for most programs, requisitions funds for modest stimulus, and reduces the deficit by a small amount over the next decade. Yes, there is a progressive alternative, but it takes little support from Democratic leaders, including President Obama.

By contrast, the House budget calls for radical reforms of government: It turns Medicare into a voucher system, Medicaid into a block grant, and cuts social spending by hundreds of billions of dollars. It slashes taxes on the rich, raises them on working Americans (by way of fewer tax credits), and seeks a balanced budget in ten years. In rolling the federal government back to the 1930s, it meets the priorities of the conservative base, which—at this point—is the mainstream of the Republican Party.

Which is not to say there isn’t a conservative alternative to the Ryan budget’s “right-wing social engineering.” There is. Crafted by the Republican Study Committee, it seeks a balanced budget in just four years, and calls for Congress to dismantle government as it currently exists. If Ryan’s is a radical document, than this is a revolutionary one.

If the House and Senate won’t band together to pass a single budget, what’s next for Congress? This summer, lawmakers will have to raise the debt ceiling, and Speaker John Boehner has already announced his demand for new spending cuts. What’s more, President Obama is still trying to build support for a new grand bargain on deficit reduction, the outcome of which is still uncertain. In other words, despite the presence of a Senate budget, we can look forward to another year of stand-offs. But that’s to be expected.

What we have in Washington, between Democrats and Republicans, isn’t a disagreement over the means to particular ends. It’s not that two sides disagree over how to administer the welfare state, it’s that they hold a fundamental disagreement over whether it’s the government’s role to provide basic support for its citizens. As long as that’s true, we can expect more of the same rancor, acrimony, and gridlock.