Monday, April 11, 2011

Congressional Chicken

When I heard about Friday night's budget agreement, I was pretty frustrated. It seemed to me the Republicans had caved, that Barack Obama and Harry Reid had held firm and given up nothing.

In terms of the last couple of weeks, I was right. But expanding the time horizon gave me a little different picture. Let's review the bidding:

  • 2010: President Obama proposed a budget for FY2011 calling for increased spending (by at least $40 billion) and increased deficits.
  • 2010: House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid decide not to do their jobs. They decide that gaining partisan political advantage is more important. As a result, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi decline to bring a budget for FY2011 to their respective house floors. In addition, none of the necessary appropriations bills were produced. Instead, they produced and passed — both during the regular Congressional session and during the post-election lame-duck session — Continuing Resolutions to continue government operations temporarily until appropriations bills (or an omnibus catch-all bill) could be passed.
    • Harry Pelosi and Nancy Reid knew, I think, a budget they would be willing to pass would be wildly unpopular and would result in large electoral losses. They gambled that keeping their plans secret would minimize their losses and enable them to maintain control of the Senate, at least.
    • If Pelosi and Reid had done their jobs, instead of taking their pay under false pretenses, note of the later sturm und drang would have occurred and there would have been no threats of a government shutdown. (There would also be no reductions in FY2011 spending.)
  • 2011: President Obama releases his budget proposal for FY2012, incorporating more increases in spending and no deficit reductions.
  • 2011: The new House Republican majority produced an omnibus budget bill (HR 1) including $61 billion in FY2011 spending cuts. The House passed it and sent it to the Senate, where it was killed. No serious budget proposal has been produced by the Democrats.
  • 2011: House Republicans also produced a less ambitious budget proposal which, as initially presented by House Speaker John Boehner, contained $32 billion in current year budget cuts — a spending reduction of less than 1%. Herry Reid blasted the cuts as "draconian" and "unworkable".
    • Reid finally responded with a proposal to cut $4.7 billion (which he claimed was really $6.5 billion). Critics derided Reid's proposal as being just budgetary gimmicks and "smoke & mirrors" rather than real cuts.
  • 2011 — last week: President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and House Speaker Boehner announced a budget agreement incorporating $38.5 billion in FY2011 spending cuts. Harry Reid celebrates this agreement as "historic", and Barack Obama celebrates it as “the largest annual spending cut in our history.”
The Democrat leadership has claimed the differences between them and the Republican leadership — the differences that held up the budget agreement — were in the riders the Republicans put on their proposal, not in the spending reductions. They particularly claimed the Republicans were trying to deny women their Planned Parenthood mammograms (cancer screenings), which Planned Parenthood apprently doesn't do. They had previously said the problem was a rider to deny the EPA funds to regulate greenhouse gases. The Republican leadership has said the differences were in the spending reductions, and that the other issues had already been resolved.

The statements from the Democrat leadership, and from the mainstream media, would lead one to believe all the riders were removed before the agreement was reached. But that is not so. A number of riders remained in the agreement itself. Specifically,

  • Defunding of Planned Parenthood is not incorporated in the agreement, but Reid for the first time agreed to allow a Senate vote on defunding Planned Parenthood
  • Funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, from federal or city funds, is banned
  • Reid agreed for the first time to allow a Senate vote on repealing Obamacare
  • A series of studies are mandated to identify the actual impacts of the Obamacare bill, as opposed to what we were all told a year ago those impacts were
  • No funds can be used to hire the additional IRS agents required for Obamacare funding
  • Paired annual private sector and GAO audits are required of the Dodd-Frank bill's consumer financial protection agency to identify what its actual impacts are on the U.S. financial system
  • Funding school vouchers (school choice) in Washington, DC
There may be other riders that were not specifically identified in the news reports. These might include
  • Banning funding for White House czars
  • Rescinding unobligated funds from Obama's 2009 stimulus bill
  • Fully auditing all Obamacare waivers
  • Blocking foreign aid for Sauti Arabia
  • Ending subsidies to mohair farmers
The most interesting thing to me here, overall, is the incorporation into a formal legislative compromise of agreements by Senate Majority Leader Reid to allow votes on issues he's never previously allowed to come to the Senate floor. These may actually have been the final sticking points in the negotiations.

So here's a "bottom line" I've largely come to agree with, in two parts:

  • (Part One) “Is $39 billion a significant cut? No. But it’s more than ever done before. In the context of saving America, we need to be talking about trillions, not billions.” Indeed, cutting $38.5 billion out of the more than $1 trillion in annual spending added by Obama & Reid & Pelosi, during the time the Democrats held full power in the Congress, can only be considered a near-trivial pittance. Nevertheless,
  • (Part Two) “We’ve changed the conversation,” said freshman Rep. Tim Griffin (R., Ark.). “This year we’re talking about how much we’re going to reduce — cut — and that’s a major cultural shift in a matter of months.” Even Barack Obama and Harry Reid are now talking about spending cuts rather than spending increases. (And Nancy Pelosi is away from Congress, at speaking engagements somewhere else.)
Yes, the $38.5 billion reduction in federal spending is, as Obama said, “the largest annual spending cut in our history” — but it's small potatoes when considered alongside the largest annual spending increases in our history (over $1 trillion per year) that Obama and his friends have pushed through since they took over. These cuts are only a small percentage of the increases, which were added onto an already bloated federal budget.

A great victory? No. But it's a start.

Some additional sources for information in this posting: ABC News, The Hill, Politico, Washington Examiner

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