Sunday, April 29, 2012, is an anniversary unprecedented in the history of American politics, marking three years since the Democratic-led Senate last complied with federal law by passing a budget.
The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 stipulates that Congress must approve a budget resolution by April 15 of each year. In the Senate, only 51 votes are needed to pass a budget, as budgets are one of the few pieces of legislation invulnerable to a filibuster. Democrats currently control 53 seats.
Democratic lawmakers have offered myriad excuses for their refusal to offer a budget, none of which hold up to scrutiny, critics say.
Most recently, Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has suggested it would be politically unfeasible to present a budget during a presidential election year.
"If one is interested in really getting a result, the time is not yet right," he told reporters earlier this month. "I don’t rule out being able to act more quickly. But I think the greater likelihood is it won’t come until the election."
Few doubt that campaign politics are a motivating factor in the Democrats’ decision. More than 20 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in November, and many Republicans suspect that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) axed Conrad’s intention to propose a budget, hold a formal "mark-up" hearing, and attempt to pass it out of committee in order to spare vulnerable members from casting politically difficult votes on tax hikes, energy policy, health care, and government waste.
But, as National Review’s Rich Lowry has pointed out, Senate Democrats have failed to propose a budget in "every kind of year there is in Washington," whether during a presidential election (2012), off year (2011), or midterm election (2010).
"By this standard," Lowry wrote, "the Senate will have an annual excuse not to pass a budget resolution for the rest of time."
Democrats also contend that the post-election "lame duck" session – the last chance for the current Congress to pass legislation before new members are sworn in – presents an ideal opportunity for a comprehensive budget deal to ward off what leading experts have described as "the most predictable economic crisis in history."
"I believe people of good faith working together—I think it's going to be after the election—are going to have an opportunity because all the tax cuts are about to expire," Conrad said on Fox News.
Congress must act before year’s end to address a number of key policy issues, such as the expiration of the so-called "Bush tax cuts" and the scheduled implementation of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that would disproportionately affect the defense budget. Treasury Sec. Timothy Geithner and others have described this as a "fiscal cliff" that will spur lawmakers to compromise.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, dismissed the idea of a "lame duck" budget deal. "I think the chances of anything happening in the lame duck are zero," he told the Washington Free Beacon. This is especially true, he argued, in the event that Republicans hold the House and regain control of the Senate, as many election analysts are projecting.
"If Republicans hold the House and win the Senate—even if they don’t win the presidency—why in the world would they negotiate?" Norquist said. "Whichever party does better in the election is going to want to wait until after the lame duck."
Democrats made a similar argument last year following the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling. Many predicted that the so-called "super committee" established in the deal would reach an agreement because if it did not the aforementioned $1.2 trillion spending would go into effect. The committee failed.
The 2011 debt ceiling deal—known as the Budget Control Act (BCA)—is often invoked by Senate Democrats to explain their decision not to offer a budget this year.
"It is important to remember that we already have a budget for this year and next," Conrad said in a statement. "The Budget Control Act provided us with spending limits and enforcement measures for 2012 and 2013. It is the law of the land."
Reid implored the Senate’s chief rule-keeper to determine that the BCA precluded the Senate from voting on any other budget resolutions, such as those proposed by President Obama and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).
Reid’s contention was rejected.
While it is true that bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress ultimately supported the BCA, every leading Democrat, including Reid, Obama, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), initially opposed attaching any spending cuts to the president’s request for a $2.4 trillion increase to the federal borrowing limit.
In an effort to duck responsibility for not passing a budget, Norquist said, Democrats are seeking cover behind a law they fought every step of the way.
Furthermore, though Democrats criticized House Republicans for passing a budget that would spend slightly less than the maximum amount allowed under the BCA, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a postal service reform bill that increased spending by $34 billion above the BCA spending cap.
"What’s interesting about Democrats not doing a budget for three years is that they don’t believe their plans for the future on spending and taxes are popular," Norquist said. "If they believed their plan was coherent and would generate popular support, they would rush to put it out in front of everybody."
Conrad has proposed a "long-term plan"—not a budget, he insists—in the form of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission report, a series of recommendations presented in non-legislative language.
Obama authorized the report by executive order but has not endorsed it. Senate Democrats are no more eager to embrace it.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she "[doesn’t] agree with everything" in Bowles-Simpson, but praised its "balanced approach," referring to its sizable tax increases. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) expressed "deep concerns" with the report.
In addition to neglecting to pass a budget in three years, Senate Democrats have yet to cast a single affirmative vote on any budget resolution. When Obama’s budget came to a vote last year, every single Democrat voted against it. They have also savaged the proposals offered in Ryan’s House budgets.
"Obama has been attempting to run against a do-nothing Congress," Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told the Washington Free Beacon. "What we have is a do-nothing Harry Reid Senate. House Republicans have fulfilled their responsibility and put forward a serious proposal. Senate Democrats have done virtually nothing."
"They simply don’t want to be held accountable," Johnson added. "Either they don’t have a plan, or they are totally unwilling tell the American people what their plan is."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he thought the latter statement was true.
"I actually think they do have a plan," he told the Free Beacon. "Their goal is to increase spending and increase taxes. But that plan will be rejected by the American people."
Even left-wing political commentator Chris Matthews has suggested this was the case. "Would Democrats deal with debt if they had complete control of the government?" he asked on his MSNBC show "Hardball." "I wonder if the public would put up with the tax level they might impose, don’t you?"
Analysts at the Senate Budget Committee have calculated that the Bowles-Simpson report, as proposed by Conrad, contains no spending cuts as compared to current law, and would raise taxes by $600 billion more than Obama has proposed.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated last week that Obama’s budget would have a detrimental effect on long-term economic growth and would add an additional $3.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit, as compared to current law.
Neither plan proposes to meaningfully reform the federal entitlement programs that are the leading drivers of the debt and deficit.
"It’s not as if I have to say their plan is no stinking good," Norquist said. "They think that. That’s why they’re hiding it."
In the meantime, the longer the country goes without a credible solution to the coming fiscal crisis, the more debt the federal government continues to accumulate.
The national debt was $11.2 trillion when the Senate Democrats last passed a budget. Today, three years later, it is $15.6 trillion and counting.