Senate Democrats were expected to bring up the House Republicans’ 2012 budget plan for a vote this week, but not their own plan, which remains under lock and key.
It’s not because the Democrats want to be magnanimous and give the GOP plan full consideration as the basis for negotiations on a bipartisan compromise. No, they intend to demagogue it to death, focusing almost entirely on its provision to slowly replace Medicare with a government-subsidized health care voucher plan for seniors - a privatization idea Democrats think will prove fatal to dozens of vulnerable Republicans in next year’s elections.
But there are other reasons why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will not be offering the Democrats’ own budget proposal. They don’t have one - or, at least, one they want to reveal to the public. That’s locked away in Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad’s safe at a time when President Obama’s administration is running a $1.6 trillion budget deficit, the third in a string of trillion-dollar deficits that will add more than $10 trillion to an already monstrous $14.3 trillion national debt over this decade.
Next to the lackluster economy and a persistently high 9 percent unemployment rate, runaway spending and debt remain among the voters’ greatest concerns. But the Democrats’ strategy right now is not to grab the deficit by the horns and wrestle it into submission. It is to play political games with the issue and with the American people, to help the Democrats win back control of the House and rebuild their dwindling forces in the Senate.
And don’t expect to see the Democrats’ secret budget anytime soon, if there is one. Indeed, Mr. Reid has told reporters, “There is no need to have a Democratic budget, in my opinion. It would be foolish for us to do a budget at this stage.”
Preparing an annual budget blueprint is the No. 1 job of Congress. The 2012 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Congress has just four months to adopt a budget plan and put it into effect through the laborious appropriations process. The Democrats’ message: Not to worry. We don’t need a budget right now. Let the spending flow.
But if there ever was a time in our history when our government needed an ironclad budget to stop runaway spending from pushing the U.S. economy over the cliff, that time is now.
The Democrats did not pass a budget in the last Congress, even when they had huge majorities in the House and Senate, and they haven’t been able to produce a budget plan this year, either.
Why? In part because of deep divisions in their ranks over how much to cut spending and whether to cut it all - but also because they think that by playing political games with the budget process, they can make the Republicans look cruel and heartless and bolster their prospects in next year’s elections.
The story behind the Democratic leadership’s decision to duck its responsibility to tackle the nation’s fiscal crisis hasn’t received very much attention in the national news media. A brief story appeared in The Washington Post last week under the headline “Senate Democrats keep budget close to the vest.”
Mr. Conrad’s excuse is that he wants to give a bipartisan group of senators a chance to produce an agreement. But Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a key Republican budget-cutter who has earned the nickname “Dr. No,” has dropped out of the group known as the “Gang of Six” because of its inability reach to an agreement on getting control of Medicare’s unsustainable rising costs.
Mr. Coburn says he is “on sabbatical” from the Gang of Six, but he remains doubtful that anything can come from fruitless negotiations over soaring entitlements that are going to break the bank when tens of millions of baby boomers sign up for Social Security and Medicare. Meantime, separate negotiations are being led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden over a plan that would reduce borrowing by $4 trillion over 10 years.
But half those savings would come from higher taxes, which would be a non-starter with Republicans, who have made it clear that higher taxes are off the table.
Getting control of spending and gradually reducing borrowing are not insoluble problems. They just require political will and, most of all, leadership - which is missing in Washington - from Mr. Obama, who has kept his distance from the battle. The Senate Democrats see this as a political opportunity - not a solemn responsibility to “preserve and protect” our country at a time of great economic peril.
Mr. Reid’s attempt at political gamesmanship in the midst of this emerging fiscal train wreck is a disgrace. What America needs right now is a tough-as-nails budget that reins in spending and borrowing and lowers taxes to boost job creation and much stronger economic growth.
But as long as Mr. Reid and his gang of big spenders run the Senate, we will continue to see a spendthrift government that is spiraling ever deeper into unfathomable debt.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.