The federal budget deficit will be nearly $1 trillion this year, our national debt is headed toward $17 trillion, Congress‘ approval polls are a dismal 13 percent, and our lawmakers are on a two-week spring break.
A very wise observer of government once said, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” If that’s so, the longer our lawmakers are out of town, maybe the better it will be for all of us.
When an irate Boston constituent once complained at a town hall meeting that members of Congress didn’t seem to work very hard, then- House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill joked, “It beats heavy lifting.”According to the work schedule released by House GOP leaders in January, lawmakers, who are paid $174,000 a year plus generous health and pension benefits, will be in session for a grand total of 126 days this year.That’s pretty good money for a year’s “work” that seems to be regularly interrupted by recesses, seasonal breaks that are now described as “district work periods,” and a string of other holidays lasting for a week or more. For the average, 40-hour-per-week worker, the idea of taking off the month of August seems, well, a bit excessive. Especially when vacationing lawmakers leave behind a pile of unfinished work on which life, liberty and prosperity, and, indeed, our country’s future, depend.
We still haven’t gotten a firm handle on the government’s monster $1 trillion budget deficit - the fifth one in a row for President Obama, who never met a spending bill he didn’t like. We’ve been borrowing that much or more every year in order to pay the bills for national security, entitlements, food stamps, unemployment benefits and hundreds of other programs large and small.
These add to the government’s ballooning debt that has increased by $6 trillion since Mr. Obama took office, and likely will grow to $20 trillion by the time he leaves office in January 2017.
There has been some modest progress of late. Budgets for fiscal 2014 were not only passed in both chambers of Congress, but this was the Senate’s first budget in four years. It was getting harder for the Democrats to blame Republicans for the budget impasse when they refused to produce one of their own. The two spending blueprints, however, are about as far apart as Earth is from Neptune.
The House bill, shaped by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would end the deficits and balance the budget through $5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. It would reform entitlements to bring their costs in line with future beneficiary growth, block-grant Medicaid to the states and repeal Obamacare.The Senate plan makes relatively few spending cuts, raises taxes by $1 trillion, barely touches entitlements, and doesn’t balance the budget. Four Democrats voted against it, and one Democrat didn’t vote at all. It squeaked through with 50 votes, hardly a vote of confidence from Democrats for their job-killing, soak-the-rich policies.The budget process calls for both chambers to hash out their differences in a conference committee, but it is very hard to see how they will be able to bridge the wide policy gulf that separates them. “At this point in time, I don’t know how we go forward,” House Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters.
Throw in immigration reform, which hasn’t even reached the formal proposal stages yet, though it’s drawing support from some of Congress‘ staunchest conservatives. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has picked up the libertarian banner from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is the latest senator to offer a plan that offers a path to legalizing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The gun-control debate now seems all but stalled after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared he cannot find more than 40 Democratic votes in a chamber his party controls.
For all those who fear we are forever saddled with a hopelessly dysfunctional government that is incapable of dealing with these and other challenges, consider what happened just before lawmakers left for their spring break.
The short-term funding measure that was due to expire at the end of this month, threatening a government shutdown, didn’t end because both sides got together and hammered out a compromise. House Republicans stood their ground and agreed to a 2012 budget bill sent over by the Senate that will keep the government funded through the end of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The White House and the Senate Democrats effectively threw in the towel on the sequestration cuts that Mr. Obama wanted eliminated or changed. They had charged the cuts would plunge the country into poverty and pestilence.The bill locked in the $85 billion in sequestration spending reductions that Republicans demanded, though it allows the Pentagon and other agencies new flexibility to choose where the cuts will fall.
These developments threw the president into an uncomfortable situation where he was boxed into signing the budget bill that will make deep cuts in the very programs he championed and ran on in 2012: spending for roads, bridges and railways; early-childhood education; lots more green-energy loans and grants, and bigger research and development budgets.Thus, Mr. Obama will have to swallow hard when he signs the budget bill that will cut into his highest priorities. “With his signature this week, President Obama will lock into place deep spending cuts that threaten to undermine his second-term economic vision just four months after he won re-election,” The Washington Post bemoaned in a front-page story.
The ice-cold political reality that greeted Mr. Obama on his return from his Middle East trip is that none of his second-term policies “have come close to being enacted,” The Post said. His signature nails down sequestration budget cuts he has called “dumb” and that The Post bluntly says “undermines many of the goals he laid out in the 2012 campaign.”
Score a big one for both the GOP and the taxpayers, and zero for the president. Maybe at least some of our lawmakers deserved that spring break after all.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.