Democratic Unity on Budget Faces Tests in New Congress
What flavor of nationalized health care can the party agree to — if any?
If voters give Democrats control of the House in November, they’ll get a chance to write the first left-leaning budget blueprint since 2009 in that chamber.
That would give Democrats an opportunity to show through the tax and spending blueprint how they want to address rising deficits, insolvency projections for social safety net programs, and get a jump on their 2020 message.
The danger, however, is that budget talks devolve into the same intraparty squabble that derailed a budget resolution in 2010, with moderate Blue Dog Democrats pushing to hold the line on deficits and the liberal wing of the party pushing back against the belt-tightening trend at the time.
Likewise, the annual budget resolution also presents a challenge for the politically diverse group of lawmakers, some of whom want a consensus budget that can gain traction in swing districts and others who want a progressive message that can appeal to the base. And if the Senate stays in GOP hands, there may be less incentive for House Democrats, should that chamber flip, to take tough votes if their proposals aren’t going anywhere.
Some longtime budget hands say it won’t even get to the stage of writing a budget resolution because there are more immediate hurdles at hand. The current debt ceiling suspension expires March 1; though so-called extraordinary measures and April tax receipts may push back the due date temporarily, the need to deal with the statutory debt cap starts out as the most pressing fiscal matter.
In addition, Congress needs to come up with another discretionary spending cap agreement, or defense and nondefense appropriations face cuts of 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from negotiated fiscal 2019 levels.
“Chances are probably good that the decision to adjust the caps for [fiscal] ’20 and ’21 will be done before there even is a budget resolution considered in either House and that is likely to be tied to the debt limit in March,” said G. William Hoagland, a former top Senate GOP budget aide.
Still, Democrats in both chambers say they are optimistic they can unite around a budget resolution if they gain control.
John Yarmuth of Kentucky, who is poised to become the next House Budget chairman if his party takes control, dismissed concerns that a wave of progressive Democrats would make it harder for the party to agree on a budget resolution.
“Nah, I think that’s such an overblown narrative,” he said. “I think there is in terms of values and principles … very little space among all Democrats in Congress.”
Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, the ranking member on Senate Budget who caucuses with the Democrats, takes a similar view.
“No, I really don’t” think it will be hard for Senate Democrats to agree on a budget, Sanders said.
Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that more left-leaning Democrats are gaining influence in the party and even knocking off established incumbents. They have a list of priorities, including a single-payer health care system, new taxes on carbon emissions and stock trades, and steep cuts in defense, that are not shared by more moderate members of the party.
While a budget resolution does not go to the president for his signature or become law, it sets enforceable limits on taxes and spending and can serve as a statement of a party’s principles.
Consider the contrast between the House Democratic budget resolutions crafted as a consensus document and the Congressional Progressive Caucus budgets that are also put forth each year.
The progressive budget for fiscal 2018, for example, would have raised $6 trillion more in revenue over a decade and increased spending by $5 trillion more than the Democratic alternative. To illustrate the splintering in the caucus, the progressive budget received 108 votes and the official Democratic budget received 156 votes on the House floor last year. Another liberal alternative, from the Congressional Black Caucus, received 130 votes.
Regardless of whether House Budget Committee Democrats choose a moderate or progressive path, there are key elements they won’t be able to avoid. At the top of that list is the growth rate of mandatory programs and the reduced revenue that resulted from the GOP tax bill. When combined with increases in discretionary spending, that has resulted in sharp deficit increases.
The Congressional Budget Office reported this month that the fiscal 2018 deficit is expected to be $782 billion, a sharp increase of $116 billion or 17 percent above the previous year. That’s the largest such figure since fiscal 2012 when the deficit topped $1 trillion, a milestone the CBO expects the federal government to hit once again in fiscal 2020 — and remain there for the foreseeable future.
Yarmuth said if Democrats take control, the budget the committee marks up will likely be similar to past proposals that House Democrats have offered as alternatives to GOP budgets during the past seven years. “It will be a statement of our priorities and values as opposed to what we see coming out of the White House,” he said.
Yarmuth said he isn’t worried about disagreements within the party.
“We all believe health care is a right, not a privilege. So, the question is, some want to go Medicare for all, some want to improve the ACA, but everybody wants to move in the same direction,” he said, referring to the 2010 health care law. “I don’t think you’re going to see any ill effects of differences in approaches, because the principles and values are all the same. The same with immigration, the same with climate change.”
Health care divide
The universal Medicare proposal could, however, be a sticking point.
Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal, who sits on the House Budget Committee, supports the idea and launched a political action committee in September to support Democratic candidates who feel the same way.
“The United States is the only industrialized nation that still doesn’t guarantee comprehensive health care to every single resident,” she said in a statement announcing the PAC’s creation. “Health care cannot be a luxury that’s only available for the wealthy and well-connected — it is a human right. Now is the time for Medicare For All.”
Sanders, one of the most left-leaning senators in the Democratic caucus and a “Medicare for all” supporter, has not said whether he wants to assume chairmanship of the Budget Committee if Democrats take control. “I think it’s a little early to speculate,” he said on the way out of town last week.
If Montana Democrat Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, were defeated in his re-election bid, Sanders would be next in line to lead Veterans assuming Washington Sen. Patty Murray chose to remain as the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But Sanders already has chaired the Veterans Committee. And chairing the Budget Committee would give him a wider portfolio of issues, particularly valuable if he has thoughts of another presidential run in 2020.
Senate Budget Committee member Chris Van Hollen, who previously served as ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Democrats have been able to iron out differences in the past and can do so again. “This will be a good problem to have if we’re in control of both houses,” the Maryland Democrat quipped.
“I think the core issues that bring Democrats together are pretty consistent,” he said, noting a belief in expanding workforce training opportunities and promoting debt-free college, as well as bringing down the cost of prescription drugs. “I mean, there’s a sort of nucleus of issues that brings everybody together.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story transposed the progressive and black caucus budget votes.