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Without a budget, how will Democrats communicate their fiscal priorities?

Party blaming GOP for deficits, relying on appropriations to reveal where they think tax dollars should be spent

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer are posing for a picture
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, joined by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters about President Donald Trump's budget request for fiscal year 2021, at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call) ()

House Democrats do not plan to draft a budget resolution this year, so how do they communicate their fiscal priorities with voters ahead of a crucial 2020 campaign?

The answer depends on whom you ask, but it boils down to this: Democrats have shown through the appropriations process which programs they think taxpayer dollars should be spent on and through their legislative agenda where they think additional investments are needed. But when it comes to addressing the trajectory of $1 trillion annual deficits, Democrats point the blame at Republicans’ 2017 tax law and have largely opted against offering their own solutions.

Several Democratic lawmakers interviewed Tuesday said with the two-year budget agreement that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law last year, there’s no need for a budget resolution. The topline defense and nondefense spending levels, which are the most important part of largely aspirational party budget resolutions, have already been agreed to as part of that deal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that rationale on Tuesday, all but guaranteeing the Senate won’t be producing a budget resolution either.

“I can’t imagine that we could reach an agreement on a budget with this particular House of Representatives. So we’ve got the caps deal in place, we negotiated it last year, it’s good for the second year and we’ll comply with that,” McConnell said.

With those fiscal 2021 spending levels enacted into law, House appropriators have begun drafting the 12 annual spending bills. Several Democrats say it’s the appropriations measures that will best communicate Democrats’ fiscal priorities.

“We started last week in Appropriations, and I think that appropriation will set a priority of where Democrats want to be,” said Appropriations member Henry Cuellar of Texas.

But as a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Cuellar said Democrats “definitely” should do more to tackle the deficit. Most of that comes from increases in entitlements, he said, noting it will take both parties to come together to make any meaningful changes.

“That one, we’ve got to hold hands to make that happen,” he said.

Working with Trump in that regard would be difficult, Democrats say.

“Reducing the deficit is very tough when you have an administration that’s cutting revenues so deeply and as quickly as they have cut,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said.

Like Cuellar, Hoyer said Democrats can communicate their fiscal priorities through the appropriations process, as they did last year when the House also did not pass a budget resolution.

“We’ve articulated our priorities we’ve set for the American people,” he said. “And we’re going to continue them this year.”

Playing budget defense

Democrats are playing more defense than offense when it comes to budgeting. They spent much of Tuesday attacking Trump for the budget his administration put forward Monday, particularly homing in on cuts he proposes to health care and education programs, without offering much in the way of alternative ideas.

“We have a saying in the House: Show me your budget, show me your values. That’s where it is,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “And [Trump’s budget] is really a statement so undermining of the values of what America is as a community, [while] we are about respecting what the needs are of American working families.”

Pelosi suggested that Trump is rationalizing the cuts in the name of deficit reduction, but that’s not truly his goal.

“They’re doing this so they can give advantages to the high end,” she said. “We want to see balance in all this. We want to see where we can find savings. Let’s subject everything we spend to harsh scrutiny so the results of the American people are the best that we can be.”

Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said he decided against doing a budget resolution this year because “it wouldn’t change anything” with the topline spending numbers already set. But he thinks Democrats are and will continue to communicate their fiscal priorities in other ways.

“I think we’re going to talk about all the things we’ve done, introducing infrastructure bills, working on prescription drugs, shoring up Obamacare,” the Kentucky Democrat said, noting that the party’s legislative agenda “has pretty much described what our priorities are.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey freshman, said that “one of the best things” Democrats have done in his tenure so far is pass HR 3, the prescription drug pricing bill, and he argued they could do more to frame that as an act of fiscal responsibility.

“If you are serious about reducing the deficit, getting health care costs under control is probably the most important thing you can do,” he said. “It saves hundreds of billions of dollars.”

HR 3 does produce $456 billion in savings from its price negotiating provisions, but Democrats would reinvest most of that in expanding Medicare benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimate only accounts for $5 billion in overall savings.

When CQ Roll Call pointed out that most of the savings in HR 3 are reinvested, not allocated toward deficit reduction, Malinowski said, “That’s worth discussing.”

In comparison, the Senate Finance Committee has its own prescription drug pricing bill that saves less — around $100 billion, according to a CBO estimate of an early version — but leaves it all for deficit reduction.

‘Other deficits’

Yarmuth argued the deficit is “not a near-term problem” with the Federal Reserve projecting that interest rates are going to remain stable for the next couple of decades. Rather, Democrats are focused on making investments that will grow the economy in the longer term before the deficit becomes a more urgent problem.

“I don’t think there’s anybody focused on the deficit, concerned about the deficit right now,” Yarmuth said. “We’re taking the perspective that there are other deficits in the country right now that are every bit as important to our future — deficits in infrastructure, in education and in health care — and we have to work on those as well.”

Several moderate Democrats, however, say they remain focused on the deficit. A few mentioned it at a news conference that the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus held Tuesday.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Problem Solvers member who also co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, said both parties need to work together to tackle big issues like infrastructure, the debt and deficit.

“The only ideas that benefit the people we represent are the policies that can be passed into law today,” the Florida Democrat said.

Freshman Rep. Ben McAdams agreed that addressing the debt and deficit has to be a priority for everyone, noting, “We are in this situation because of the actions of both the Democrat and Republican parties.”

McAdams said there are things he likes and doesn’t like in the president’s budget.

“I will commend him for putting forward a budget, and I think we should do the same,” the Utah Democrat said.

Rep. Dean Phillips, another freshman in the Problem Solvers Caucus, said it’s not just the deficit on which Congress has failed to produce solutions.

“Whether it’s immigration, whether it’s fiscal responsibility, whether it’s health care, both parties seem to have punted,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “Absent a process by which Democrats can sit down at a table with Republicans and at least build trust and talk about the issues and hopefully propose solutions, nothing will get done.”

However, not all Democrats think bipartisanship coalitions in Congress would be enough to solve the deficit problem.

“It’s got to start at the top, and that’s at the presidential level, to get people to sit up and take notice,” Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind told CQ Roll Call. “I know Trump won’t, because he’s got to try to explain why we’re running trillion [-dollar] annual deficits under his watch. But hopefully our side will.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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