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House budget plan? A dereliction of duty

By David S. Broder
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A15

On June 30, the Congressional Budget Office issued its long-term outlook, predicting that deficits would come down for the next few years as the need for counter-recession spending eased and revenue improved. But then, it warned, "unsustainable" red ink would flow again, creating debts not seen since World War II.

The next day the House of Representatives passed a one-year budget resolution rather than the normal blueprint committing the government to a fiscal plan of at least five years.

For all the publicity that goes to earmarks and other spending gimmicks, this was a far worse dereliction of duty. And the cynicism of the maneuver just made it worse.

One of the casualties of this maneuver is the partnership that developed between Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the committee's ranking Republican. In January, they were co-sponsors of the legislation to create a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, whose recommendations for closing the budget gap would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in Congress.

The commission legislation was defeated in February when seven Republican senators who had initially co-sponsored it defected on the roll call. At that point, President Obama stepped in and rescued the idea, creating the commission by executive order.

Now, in a stunning reversal, the Democrats are using the existence of the commission to justify their abandonment of their long-term budget responsibilities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brazenly hailed the one-year substitute as "another key step . . . in restoring fiscal responsibility." Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the House budget committee chairman, more modestly termed it "the functional equivalent of a traditional budget resolution."

"These are disciplines for the short run," Spratt said, "while the fiscal commission works out recommendations for the longer run."

The Republicans, who had been rightly roasted for abandoning Conrad and Gregg on the vote to create the commission, were not about to let the Democrats pull off this bait-and-switch. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the top Republican on Spratt's committee, said in a statement: "This is not a budget. The measure fails to meet the most basic, commonly understood objectives of any budget. It does not set congressional priorities; it does not align overall spending, tax, deficit and debt levels; and it does nothing to address the runaway spending of federal entitlement programs."

When I reached Gregg by phone, he said the commission -- on which both he and Ryan serve and to which the Democrats were ostensibly deferring -- "remains a hope-and-prayer exercise." Its work has barely begun, and it is not due to report until December.

Gregg speculated that the reason the Democrats did not pass a real budget resolution is because "they do not want to let the American people see how bad the five-year numbers really are."

My next call was to Conrad, and I felt nothing but pity for him. He had passed a credible five-year budget through his committee but deferred to the leadership and did not call it up for a floor vote. Now, he said, with the House's action, "it makes no sense. There's nothing for it to link up to."

The terrible irony in all this? More and more people are seeing that what this agonizing situation requires is a limited and temporary measure to pump more life into the economy and create jobs, along with a serious commitment to impose real spending discipline and hold down deficits in the long term -- exactly what a five-year budget resolution could provide.

Gregg and Conrad agree that such a resolution could "unleash huge energy back into the economy," because corporations are hoarding $1.8 trillion in their treasuries and consumers are sitting on billions more.

Of all the times for Congress to abandon its responsibility for long-term fiscal planning, this is the worst.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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