Yesterday, Ezra Klein wrote:
[Y]ou really wouldn’t know that Democrats, who control both the White House and the Senate, technically have a lot more power than Republicans, who only control the House. At the very least, no one appears to have told this to the Republicans.
At any rate, Democrats, as you might imagine, aren’t interested in sticking to the menu House Republicans drew up for them.
Well, it isn’t clear that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) actually is in control, at least as much as the liberal base would hope. For if the Democrats had all this power, wouldn’t the omnibus budget have passed in the lame-duck session or the Democrats’ “not a penny in cuts” have carried the day?
Moreover, we should be clear about what is going on here. Ezra suggests that “the Republican position appears to be: ‘How do we preserve current tax rates and most current spending while getting Democrats to accept deep cuts to the small fraction of the budget called non-defense discretionary spending?’ It’s a weird position.”
Actually it isn’t weird at all; it’s what is required by law. A knowledgable budget wonk e-mails me, “You can’t legislate on appropriations bills, and you certainly can’t use discretionary spending bills to structurally reform mandatory spending programs. A fundamental challenge with restraining the growth of autopilot entitlement spending is that it is explicitly exempt from this annual appropriations process. That’s what makes them ‘entitlements.’ ” Well, yes, there is that.
But there might be something to that. Congress could, of course, convert mandatory spending into discretionary spending. Every budget year we could have a rip-roaring debate on all revenue and on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But if Congress, as it did last year, failed to pass a budget and major appropriations bill, those Social Security checks wouldn’t go out. Come to think of it, this sounds like a splendid way of enforcing some fiscal sobriety.
But I don’t think Ezra need fear that the Republicans are going to shy away from entitlement reform, which certainly is at the heart of our fiscal woes. Next week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) is going to put forth his 2012 budget. I’m betting he’s not going to limit his work to discretionary spending.