Haste Makes Waste

By David S. Broder
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, is only 30 but is already serving his third term in the House of Representatives. So it may have been just youthful exuberance that caused him to exclaim, "It is a great day in this House and a great day for our nation and an honor to kick off the debate about the fiscal blueprint, that our conference of the House and the Senate has come together to set forth the priorities for our nation."

Putnam was talking about the budget resolution -- setting the broad outlines of the tax and spending policies of the federal government for the next five years -- that whisked through Congress in a few hours one afternoon and evening last week.

The sums involved are staggering; no one can fathom what $2.6 trillion in annual spending means. But there are some parts of the budget-making process you are probably unaware of that may help you assess how well the politicians in Washington are managing this vital part of their jobs.

Who wrote this budget? President Bush submitted his blueprint two months ago, and the Republican legislators stayed close to his basic design -- especially on national defense and homeland security, his top two priorities.

The House and Senate passed budget resolutions that differed sharply on some other points, notably on the scale of additional tax cuts and reductions in Medicaid and other domestic programs. There was even doubt whether Republicans could agree. In some past years, disputes between the House and Senate have prevented the passage of any budget resolution.

Reconciling those differences was the work of the conference committee that Putnam referred to. Traditionally, conferees represent both parties, but -- except for a single pro forma meeting required by congressional rules -- Republicans shut the door, excluded Democrats from participating and wrote the budget themselves.

How much time did the House and Senate spend on the final budget plan? The agreement took up 36 closely printed pages of small type and columns of figures in the Congressional Record. It was finished on Thursday morning, April 28, and brought to the floor that afternoon -- thanks to a waiver of a House rule that such conference reports "lay over" three days so members can scrutinize them. The ostensible reason for the haste was that the Senate planned to take a week's vacation starting the next day, and the budget was already two weeks behind the statutory deadline.

How well does the budget reflect the supposed priorities of the people's representatives? Well, both the House and Senate voted to delay the president's call for savings in the Medicaid program until governors and federal officials agree on reforms that will protect the poor children and the elderly who depend on that program for everything from eyeglasses to long-term care. But the conferees gave Bush much of what he wanted -- $10 billion in savings in the next five years.

What does it do about the deficits? If you believe Putnam, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other Republicans, this budget "reduces the deficit in half over four years."

But if you read the fine print, here's what you find: The budget envisages the national debt increasing by $683 billion next year; by $639 billion the second year; by $606 billion the third year; by $610 billion the fourth year; and by $605 billion the fifth year.

As Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee asked, "Where is the deficit cut in half?"

What does the budget do for Social Security? It transfers the roughly $150 billion "surplus" in Social Security taxes over this year's Social Security payments to help pay the bills for this year's government spending and to finance the additional $106 billion in tax cuts the president wants to hand out.

This budget passed with only Republican votes, 52 to 47 in the Senate, and 214 to 211 in the House. And here's another thing you probably don't know. The 10 House members who missed the vote were seven Democrats and three Republicans. Four of the seven absentee Democrats are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

If all 10 had voted with their party, as was likely, this budget would have failed by a single vote. You have to wonder what important business kept these legislators away.

davidbroder@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company