The Senate Democrats’ vague, conservative budget

March 13, 2013

The surprise when comparing the House Republicans' budget and the Senate Democrats' budget is just how much more conservative the Democratic effort is. I don't mean ideologically conservative, of course. I mean conservative in the sense that the dictionary defines it: "disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change."

Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee. (Ted S. Warren -- Associated Press)

There is little in the federal government Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) does not confidently propose to remake. Medicare becomes a voucher system in which we trust government regulators to keep private insurers in line. Medicaid and food stamps are handed over to the states. The tax code is flattened to two brackets. Ideologically speaking, these are very conservative decisions. But in the dictionary sense, they are anything but conservative decisions: Ryan's budget is almost entirely about upending existing institutions, and his assumed savings reflect an extraordinary confidence that untested reforms will prove wildly successful.

Sen. Patty Murray's budget, by contrast, is both a more liberal and a more traditionally conservative document. Where Ryan sees the deficit as an opportunity for historic change, Murray treats it as an economic problem that requires a modest set of spending cuts and tax increases to solve. Where Ryan's proposed deficit-reduction path is fast and severe, Murray moves slowly and cautiously. Where Ryan wants to remake the state and balance the budget, Murray just wants to stabilize and reduce the debt.

But even given that difference in objective, Murray's budget is deeply, even excessively, respectful of existing institutions. If the problem of Ryan's budget is that it wants to do far too much, the problem with Murray's budget is that it is almost entirely devoted to saying what it won't do, and it gets very vague when the topic turns to what it will.

In the "Reducing Health Costs Responsibly" section, for instance, the Senate Democrats' budget says, "first and foremost, the Senate Budget rejects the approach taken by House Republicans when it comes to cuts to health care." Fair enough. But it never really says, with any specificity, what Senate Democrats will do.

The budget speaks of "$275 billion in savings by further realigning incentives throughout the system, cutting waste and fraud, and seeking greater engagement across the health care system," but at no point across its 114 pages does it name these savings. There's talk of building on the Affordable Care Act's efforts, but few specifics.

Similarly, the tax reform section is a lengthy defense of the need for more tax revenues, and the idea of closing loopholes, but in the end, it punts on the specifics, saying simply that "the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax legislation, could generate this additional revenue through a variety of different methods."

If the budget is vague about what it would change, it is specific and effusive about what it will keep. A tremendous amount of the budget document is, in fact, an appreciation of what the federal government is already doing.

On defense, "this budget recognizes that in order to keep our commitment to these servicemembers, to safeguard our national security, and to continue our position as a beacon of freedom abroad, we need to maintain a strong national defense."

On agricultural policy, "this budget provides flexibility to the Senate Agriculture Committee to write a strong five‐year Farm Bill that will maintain an effective safety net for farmers and will continue to invest in communities through key conservation, research, nutrition, energy, and rural development programs."

Neither section follows up with specifics about the intended cuts.

About all we really know of this budget is the top lines: It plans $975 billion in tax increases, though it doesn't say precisely how it will get there, and it plans $975 billion in spending cuts, though it doesn't say precisely where they will come from.

Senate Democrats say this is because the role of the Senate Budget Committee isn't to usurp the role of the individual Senate committees. That's something Ryan has, to an unusual degree, done in the House, where his budget is now a vehicle for detailed, specific reforms that would typically be the province of other committees. Murray's approach is more traditional: She sets broad spending targets for the different areas of the budget, but leaves the specific cuts up to the relevant committees. It's just one more way in which the Senate Democrats' budget is both vaguer and more institutionally conservative than the House Republicans' budget.

Related: What I got wrong about the Senate Democrats' budget.

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Brad Plumer | March 13, 2013