Turn on any cable news channel this week and you’ll very likely hear a top Republican froth in anger over the fact that Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget in more than 1000 days.
This particular talking point has been around for months — long before the Senate crossed the 1000 days threshold. Now that it’s budget season, Republicans hope it pops, filters up into mainstream news coverage, and sows doubt in the minds of voters who don’t understand the Congressional budget process, and don’t realize how unimportant, and in most crucial respects false, the line is. Alternatively, they hope Senate Dems get spooked and move ahead with a budget document that exposes their differences and leaves them open to political attack — but has no impact on policy whatsoever.
In the narrowest technical sense, Republicans are right — Senate Democrats haven’t passed a “budget resolution” since 2009. And it’s true that a big part of the reason for the delay is that vulnerable Democrats don’t want to associate themselves with a tax-and-spending plan that will, by necessity, envisage high deficits, some tax increases, and unpopular spending cuts, for years to come. Republicans marched fearlessly into a similar buzz saw last year, and look where it got ‘em.
But here are two things Republicans don’t mention about this 1000 days teapot tempest: First, Budget resolutions don’t have the force of law, and they aren’t the legislative tool that mandates what the government can and can not spend. That’s what appropriations bills are for, and for the last 1000 days Democrats and Republicans have worked together, however acrimoniously, to devise spending plans for the government.
Here’s how House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer explained it at a briefing with reporters last week.
“I have a bias. I served for 23 years on the Appropriations Committee. What does the budget do? The budget does one thing and really only one thing. It sets the parameters of spending and discretionary caps. Other than that, the Appropriations Committee is not bound by the Budget Committee’s priorities…. The fact is that you don’t need a budget. We can adopt appropriation bills and we can adopt authorization policies without a budget.”
But the much more important fact Republicans have left out is that the Senate passed a budget on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis last summer — one that unlike an annual “budget resolution” has the force of law behind it. The Budget Control Act — the law that resolved the debt limit fight — set binding appropriations caps for this fiscal year and the next and instituted a mechanism to contain spending on domestic discretionary programs — education, research, community health programs and the like — through the next decade.
As Hoyer explained, “We already have an agreed-upon cap on spending. So that this 1,000 days they haven’t passed a budget, the Republicans went for equal lengths of time without passing a budget. I think ‘05 and ‘06 — I don’t know whether it was a 1,000 days. But in any event, that is an argument to dissemble and distract the attention on the lack of productive accomplishment in the House of Representatives.”
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says it would be redundant for the Senate to pass a budget, this is what he means. Republicans know this. But they also know that Senate Dems have a lot of vulnerable incumbents this year. And they’d like nothing more than to force them to take an unpopular and divisive vote on abstract tax and spending priorities, when the economy’s still weak and deficits and debt are eye-popping. It would go a long way toward nullifying the Republicans’ calamitous vote for Paul Ryan’s budget, and that’s ultimately what the talkers on cable news are after.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.