April 18, 2014

US Experts Say Hill's Budget Stalemate Is Comic, Consequential

By John Shaw

WASHINGTON (MNI) -- The protracted battle between congressional Democrats and Republicans about whether to even begin House-Senate talks to try to draft a fiscal year 2014 budget resolution seems to confirm assertions about the totally dysfunctional nature of Congress.

Budget experts say the continuing battle over convening a FY'14 budget conference is both comic and consequential and they see ample evidence of gamesmanship and hypocrisy in the fiscal stalemate.

The House and Senate passed very different FY'14 budget resolutions in March and in the regular course of congressional business a House-Senate conference committee would be convened to try to draft a compromise.

Budget resolutions set broad spending and revenue goals and make deficit estimates. They are non-binding congressional blueprints but can be used to generate binding legislation which achieve the fiscal goals set out in the resolutions.

The Senate approved a budget drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a Democrat, while the House approved a budget by the House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican.

Budget experts agree that it will be difficult for Murray and Ryan to reach a broad agreement on a ten year budget, but they say a budget conference committee might conceivably be able to reach an agreement on a narrower set of issues such as the discretionary funding level for FY'14 and on how to replace the sequester in the coming fiscal year with a different mix of deficit cuts.

Congressional Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, have resisted the formal convening of a budget conference, saying that private talks between Murray and Ryan should be held first to explore if an agreement is possible.

Boehner has also said he's concerned that if House-Senate budget talks begin but then stalemate, House Democrats could force votes in the House on "politically motivated" motions related to the budget.

Democrats have seized on the apparent inconsistency of the GOP's move to block budget talks with their years-long roasting of Senate Democrats for failing to pass a budget or adhering to "regular order."

Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, said he understands Boehner's tactical concerns, but says they are very difficult to explain to the public.

"For the average person, it's hard to understand why a party which has been clamoring to follow the regular budget process is now resisting even starting budget talks. Taking this position is always going to come across as subversive and disingenuous," Bixby said.

Bixby said Congress and the administration are going to need to reach an agreement this year on the FY'14 budget and the debt ceiling and possibly on replacing sequestration with a different package of deficit cuts.

"Budget talks this summer between the House and Senate would be a good forum for trying to reach needed agreements in these areas. But I don't think that's what we're going to get. I'm afraid we're heading for a fall debt limit fight. We seem to have become addicted to these debt ceiling fights. They seem the only deadline to force the parties to talk," he said.

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman and now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, also sees a fall debt ceiling fight as increasingly likely.

"We seem to have reached a point that nothing can happen in the budget world unless it has to happen and the only deadline that seems to matter any more is the debt ceiling. I don't see anything happening until we reach that deadline," Frenzel said.

"But I sure don't see the debt ceiling as the best vehicle to reach a sound budget agreement. As we all saw in 2011, you can have a huge fight and come close to the brink and still not accomplish very much," he added.