Unbudgeted leadership in the United States Senate

Depending on your political beat, Congressman Paul Ryan is either a neatly-combed, responsible Midwesterner with some budgetary bravery, or an entitlement-slashing, Ayn Rand-worshiping fiend disguised as a harmless congressional geek. Jekyll and Hyde have apparently arrived on the House floor.

I, for one, back the Ryan Budget because it attempts to simplify our tax code, answers the call to rein in Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security costs, and is the largest debt-reduction bill ever put forth in Congress. At the same time, it preserves the basic social safety net, and contrary to last November’s now-infamous New York ads, does not wheel grannie over an Adirondack peak. Individuals over 55 will not see their retirement plans adversely affected, and the rest of us probably doubted the perpetuity of Medicare and Social Security anyway and are thankful to spy a Plan B. Of course, not everyone’s a fan of Ryan’s Wisconsin grin. Paul Krugman has labeled Ryan’s budget a version of raw “pink slime” and “the most fraudulent in American history,” while dubbing Ryan himself the “flimflam man.” I guess there’s nothing like a budget to bring out the worst of the bullies in the Washington playground.

However, an under-raised question on the Hill is, where is the Senate’s budget? Where is the well-cooked beef to counter Ryan’s “pink slime”? This week marks three years since the Senate Democrats passed a budget. Deroy Murdock points out that this “Era of the Absent Budget” has been longer than the production of “Gone with the Wind”, the construction of the Empire State Building and the War of 1812. The last time the Senate passed a budget was before I landed at Swarthmore. I was probably sitting in homeroom conjugating Latin verbs, and that sure feels like a long time past.

Such a prolonged hiatus directly violates the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, yet Majority Leader Harry Reid’s insistence on avoiding a politically dangerous vote has been largely successful. There’s nothing like budget-speak to put the populist masses to sleep. President Obama’s own proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 met with instant death on Capitol Hill because of its reckless disregard for the deficit, huge tax hikes and a pass on mounting entitlements. A Senate alternative would put Democrats on record as either supporting the President’s dreamy budget or lining up behind the less-than-glamorous stats that define Ryan’s recommendation.

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan makes for a shiny object of scorn in the press, and the President campaigns against a Trumanesque “Do-Nothing Congress.” With Congress showcasing an approval-rating lower than the likes of Stalin and O.J. Simpson, it’s been fairly easy for the White House to cast the dysfunction as Republican-induced, all while Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Kent Conrad quietly slips out the back door. Dishonestly, some claim the lack of a budget is thanks to the threat of a Republican filibuster. Yet a budget just needs a simple majority. Given their slight numerical edge, Dems could propose and pass a budget at any time. Sen. Conrad now says it’s too messy to pass a budget in an election year. Yet 2010 and 2011 didn’t bear budgets either.

Technically, there’s no defined penalty for lawmakers who refuse to bring about a budget, although the absence of a plan has most certainly intensified America’s fiscal problems, since there’s no roadmap for addressing the spiraling deficit. Yes, it’s true that last summer’s debt-ceiling duel — which Sen. Conrad keeps trumpeting as the more official-sounding “Budget Control Act” — does give an inkling as to handling some federal expenditures. But the deal offered no insight on Social Security, Medicare, or the paying of interest on the national debt. It was incomplete at best, as almost everyone who followed that disappointing showdown knows. Even Sen. Conrad must be feeling a little sheepish. A few weeks ago, he temporarily caved and announced he’d force his committee to “mark up” a “10 year plan.” Sensing Conrad was tiptoeing dangerously close to what laymen call a budget, Reid urged him to backtrack, and no details have seeped their way out of committee.

Sure, the drawn-out GOP primary has led to all sorts of Republican infighting and embarrassing yapping in the media, but the scarier sound may be behind Reid’s Senate doors: silence.

Danielle is a sophomore. You can reach her at dcharet1@swarthmore.edu.

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