WASHINGTON — Congress’ latest attempt at crafting a budget plan is on track to end up the same way as others have in the past decade: with little or no agreement.
Negotiators have little chance of breaking this string of futility, even after a 16-day government shutdown in October that cost the U.S. economy $24 billion. If they do, it’ll only be to curb automatic spending cuts, including $19 billion that hits the Pentagon starting in January.
Now budget experts, labor unions and business groups are saying enough’s enough, and questioning why lawmakers can’t live within their means the way ordinary Americans do and instead lurch from one budget standoff to the next.
“It’s a stupid way to run a country,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a non-partisan advocacy group whose members include business leaders and former lawmakers. “Change comes from two possible things: a crisis or leadership.”
One of the co-chairmen of the campaign is Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg and the New York City mayor.
SHUTDOWN NOT IN PLAY
Unlike with previous budget panels, including the failed 2011 supercommittee, there are no immediate consequences if the budget conference misses its Dec. 13 deadline – the United States won’t default on its debt and the federal government won’t shut down for lack of funding. The committee’s lack of progress is frustrating outside groups, especially business executives, who say congressional lawmakers’ habit of governing by crisis and temporary spending bills is hurting the economy and costing jobs.
“The uncertainty has a chilling effect on job creators, households and anybody who’s trying to see around a corner,” said MacGuineas, who is also president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal advocacy group.
Congress last passed a budget resolution in 2009, the equivalent of a household budget that sets spending parameters for the federal government.
In 2010, disagreement over how to handle the scheduled expiration of tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush prevented agreement on a budget resolution and Republicans won the House majority, creating a divided Congress.
The current panel is the fifth bipartisan attempt in three years to address the nation’s debt and deficit. The others, starting with the 2010 debt-reduction commission appointed by President Obama, ended in failure.
This one may, too, said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a panel member and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Negotiations have to accelerate significantly if we’re going to get something done,” he said.
The conference committee was supposed to mark a return to so-called regular order, where the chairmen and members instead of ad hoc negotiating groups work to craft a budget for the coming fiscal year and figure out a way to replace some of the automatic cuts known as sequestration.
SAME STUMBLING BLOCKS
Instead, they’re stumbling over the same obstacles that have prevented past agreements. Democrats want to end some corporate tax breaks while Republicans say they oppose any changes to the tax code outside a broader deal. Republicans want to cut spending on entitlement programs, which Democrats oppose without considerable revenue concessions. The panel’s progress so far has been limited to agreeing that its objective should be to replace the automatic cuts for one to two years with more palatable spending reductions, Van Hollen said.
“That’s a much more narrow target, but that doesn’t mean we’ll hit the target,” said Van Hollen, noting the full committee has met just twice.
The conference, headed by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairmen of their chambers’ budget committees, is the first panel in the past three years to set such a narrow goal. Murray, a Democrat, and Ryan, a Republican, made clear from their first meeting that they weren’t striving for a grand fiscal bargain.
Now, they’re struggling to achieve even a deal in the range of $50 billion to $100 billion just to reapportion automatic spending cuts that lawmakers agree are stunting investments in the military, research and education.