Senate Democrats are poised to continue their impressive streak of budgetary negligence on Wednesday by unanimously rejecting as many as five different budgets, including the one offered by President Obama. Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping that voters will pick up on the disturbing trend.
The Democratic-led Senate has not formally proposed a federal budget resolution in more than three years, and is not expected to offer one Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) have made explicitly clear that they have no intention of doing so before the November election.
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Senate Republicans plan to offer four GOP budgets—authored by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah); Rand Paul (R., Ky.); Pat Toomey (R., Pa.); and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.)—as well as the president’s budget. None of them are expected to draw any support from Democrats.
In total, members of Congress have cast more than 500 votes in favor of what is widely seen as the official Republican budget (Ryan’s) and zero in support of the president’s plan.
It is a sign, Republicans say, that Democrats are not serious about solving what experts have called "the most predictable economic crisis in history."
"They simply don’t want to be held accountable," Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told the Washington Free Beacon. "Either they don’t have a plan, or they are totally unwilling to 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 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."
"If they believed their plan was popular, they’d want to put it out in front of people, vote on it, and brag about it," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "That’s not what they’re doing. They’d rather run for reelection without the American people knowing what their vision of the budget would look like. It’s one thing for me to say their plan is unpopular. That’s what they’re saying."
Democrats have been particularly reticent to propose a credible plan to reform federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, despite the fact that these programs are the primary drivers of the national debt. Medicare’s trustees project that the program will be insolvent by 2024.
Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admitted that, even if Congress were to enact President Obama’s latest budget, "We would still be left with … what are still unsustainable commitments in Medicare and Medicaid."
Obama pledged to make entitlement reform a priority as a candidate in 2008. "We’re going to have to take on entitlements, and I think we’ve got to do it quickly," he said during a debate moderated by NBC. "I can’t guarantee that we’re going to do it in the next two years, but I’d like to do it in my first term as president."
Nearly four years later, the closest thing to Medicare reform the president has offered is the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a council of appointed "experts" given sweeping power to reduce federal reimbursements to healthcare providers. Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, has raised doubts about the board’s ability to control costs.
Ryan’s budget, on the other hand, proposes to save trillions of dollars by gradually transitioning Medicare from a "fee-for-service" model to a market-oriented "premium support" plan modeled after a bipartisan proposal co-authored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.).
Democrats have countered by accusing Republicans of trying to "end Medicare as we know it"—a charge the nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact rated "Lie of The Year" in 2011—and in one case by portraying Ryan as literally throwing the elderly off a cliff.
Geithner summed up the Democratic position on entitlement reform during a House Budget Committee hearing in February when he told Ryan, "we’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem. What we do know is, we don’t like yours."
President Obama and his Democratic allies have been far more resolute in their determination to raise taxes. Obama’s most recent budget calls for nearly $2 trillion in tax increases over the next decade. Conrad, the Senate budget chairman, has indicated that a similar amount would be appropriate.
Raising taxes is not something on which many politicians are eager to base their re-election campaigns. Studies have also shown that it is a particularly ineffective way to solve a nation’s debt and deficit problems. One report produced by the American Enterprise Institute examined data from a variety of countries between 1970-2007 and found "strong evidence that expenditure cuts outweigh revenue increases in successful consolidations."
The findings echo those of a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which concluded: "International experience shows expenditure-based fiscal consolidation tends to be more successful."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that the president’s budget, if enacted, would have a negative impact on long-term economic growth.
Ryan’s budget, on the other hand, simplifies the notoriously complex federal tax code by eliminating various loopholes and tax shelters while lowering tax rates.
Wednesday’s vote encapsulates what ought to be central issue in the 2012 campaign, Republicans say.
"This is an opportunity for the American people to assess the differences between the two parties," a GOP budget committee aide told the Free Beacon. "We’re headed for financial disaster, and Senate Democrats are making no effort to take us off that path."
"Republicans are actually putting forward proposals that are serious, that address the major challenges—on tax reform, entailment reform, spending reductions," said another Republican aide. "Democrats have punted on all these issues."
Few things better illustrate this lack of leadership more than unwillingness of Democratic lawmakers to support the president’s plan, Republicans say. Senate Democrats in all likelihood will vote in lockstep against every budget proposal, including Obama’s, and quickly move to change the subject.
"It’s a tear-off-the-Band-Aid kind of moment for them," the GOP budget aide said. "They want to get it over with quickly so they can avoid a serious conversation about the budget."
Even though Ryan’s budget, or any other GOP plan, has no chance of passing the Senate, Republicans want to use the moment to lay the groundwork for a winning political agenda.
"This is preparation for a Romney presidency," Norquist said. "Republicans can line up and vote for an actual, written down budget. If Romney wins, they can turn and say, ‘I was elected to do this.’ That’s not something Obama could say about anything he did."