New Majorities Reshaping Fiscal Landscape

Posted March 28, 2011 at 6:57pm

This is day 180 of the fiscal 2011 federal budget being held hostage. With each new continuing resolution deadline, the ransom demands escalate. Government is on a week-to-week ration of bread and water. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warns Democrats that “if they will not eat the whole loaf at one time, we will make them eat it one slice at a time.” Ratchet down spending an additional $2 billion each week, and pretty soon you’re talking real dough.

We are now on the sixth CR for this fiscal year as March Madness lurches into April Fools’ and another drop-dead date: April 8. This type of herky-jerky budgeting might be amusing if it were not wreaking havoc on all levels of government, which require some predictability to govern sensibly.

To listen to debates on the CRs you wouldn’t know this budgetary dallying is having any real-world effects. The main fight seems to be over who is most responsible for the mess. Is it the previous Democratic Congress for failing to adopt a budget and enact any regular appropriations bills? Or is it the current Republican House for upping the ante by about
$61 billion in cuts that are unacceptable to Senate Democrats and the president? (Let’s call it a draw.)

A second level of debate is more bizarre as charges proliferate over how much damage will be done by proposed budget cuts. Are Republicans really kicking Big Bird out of the nest, laying off Bert and Ernie, silencing Cookie Monster and doing irreparable harm to children?

Finally come complaints about the repetitive tedium of considering multiple CRs. One Member — a Republican — even conflated actor Bill Murray and Yankee great Yogi Berra by declaring, “It is like ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again.” Such comments reflect a disgust with the process that is bipartisan. Members of both parties are giving their leaders just one more last chance to wrap things up.

A key factor in these budgetary imbroglios is divided party control of government. When a new party takes over, it immediately wants to alter the fiscal landscape. When Republicans last took control of Congress in 1995, they were determined to slash spending. Who can forget newly anointed House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) brandishing a variety of knives in front of reporters to demonstrate just how serious he was about cutting spending?

House Republicans tried to add $17.4 billion in spending cuts to a $5.4 billion disaster relief supplemental appropriations bill. A final $16.4 billion compromise with the Senate was vetoed by Democratic President Bill Clinton (though he later signed a supplemental containing $16.3 billion in rescissions more to his liking).   

When Democrats retook control of Congress in 2007, they chose a different tack. Knowing that President George W. Bush vowed to veto any spending bills breaching an $873 billion spending cap, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) reallocated spending within that ceiling to reflect Democratic priorities. Bush signed that fourth and final CR in early February, much to the consternation of Republicans.

This year’s new Republican majority came to town with a “Pledge to America” to cut spending back to fiscal 2008 levels — roughly $100 billion from President Barack Obama’s current budget request. The original appropriations proposal would have cut $74 billion from Obama’s budget (or $32 billion from current spending levels). That hit a buzz saw of protest from caucus conservatives, so it was increased to $61 billion in cuts from current spending, or $100 billion less than Obama’s budget.

In military terms, these early budgetary forays by new majorities amount to tactical probes to test enemy lines. The majority leadership is subsequently able to use the lessons learned to devise smarter battle plans for the next budget. House Republicans are to be commended for the unprecedented four-day open amendment process on the long-term CR last month. Of the 583 amendments filed, 162 were offered and 67 adopted — 54 by Republicans and 13 by Democrats — with the amendment marathon concluding around 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday. It was a useful shakedown cruise for the approaching 2012 budget cycle (and a reality check on the limits of openness).    

The downside to these late, rearguard actions over the current budget is that each move delays groundwork on the next budget. The more time spent cleaning up the existing fiscal mess, the less time spent preparing for the next round — practically guaranteeing another train wreck come Oct. 1.

This has become a regular pattern of budgeting behavior for over a decade under differing combinations of party control of Congress and the White House. There is no sign it will change any time soon. So long as government remains under divided control and the two parties embrace different values and priorities, the politics of budgetary constraint will ensure continuing conflict and gridlock.

Pity the poor federal budgeter,

Striving to make government run;

His work only gets drudgier:

Counting backwards isn’t much fun.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.