It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
In a single week, the House and Senate Budget Committee chairs unveiled their budgets for the 2014 fiscal year. According to Democrats, Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget was an unmitigated disaster that would destroy Medicare and slash spending in draconian ways. To Republicans, Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-WA) budget was rife with new taxes and massive debt increases that threaten to send the economy into a death spiral.
What a bunch of hooey.
In reality, both packages are political markers that are more about public messaging than laying out a plan to finance government next year or setting the budgetary game plan for the next decade. And they seem even more out of context because they came out ahead of President Barack Obama’s upcoming budget request. It’s already a month overdue and still another couple weeks away.
Instead of providing the short and mid-term road map for the country’s future, the two budget proposals map out paths to each party’s promised land that don’t converge. In fact, they don’t even agree on the same baseline: the predicted level of spending that savings or cost increases are measured against.
Ryan’s proposal assumes the increase in payments to doctors under Medicare will expire (it won’t), and counts the decrease in war spending as savings (it shouldn’t do that either). It banks the across-the-board sequester cuts that started March 1, and then calls for protecting the Pentagon budget from sequestration, repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), mandating revenue-neutral tax reform (with no specifics), increasing means testing in Medicare, and nipping farm subsidies (a paltry $31 billion).
Even according to Ryan’s own plan, his much ballyhooed and derided voucher system for Medicare wouldn’t start until 2024 — leaving it outside the budget window. Against this highly questionable baseline, Ryan claims his budget would shrink the deficit by $4.6 trillion over a decade.
Murray’s proposal assumes the increase in payments to doctors under Medicare will not expire, that the sequester-level cuts will be waived, notes the decrease in war spending (and draws it down more rapidly) but appropriately doesn’t count this as savings. From there, the proposal calls for additional revenue by eliminating tax breaks but is silent as to which ones they target. It also cuts some military spending, but these reductions are only half as steep as the current round of sequestration cuts. It calls for small cuts in non-Pentagon spending and health care related savings. And farm subsidies savings are even more meager at $23 billion. Against her baseline, Murray claims her budget would bring on $1.9 trillion in deficit reduction.
So that’s what the budgets say they are going to do, but only if we follow the roads each has laid out. So it’s the first year that really counts, and it’s extremely unlikely that we’re going to see a House-Senate joint budget resolution emerge from these two proposals. But lawmakers should still seek any overlaps and work to build those into any final deal.
That deal — if there is one in the end — will be the phoenix that rises up out of the ashes of these two budget resolutions and Obama’s budget request. I agree with most observers that the sequester cuts are here to stay (at least until they are replaced by something), but that’s just discretionary spending. Other fundamental changes are needed if we are going to make Medicare and Social Security more sustainable. There must be some comprehensive tax reform that yields additional revenue.
Most importantly, the political theater must stop. Our lawmakers need to work harder on solutions than sound bites.