In this budget season, Washington doesn’t have a problem with the vision thing.
The president wants to make community colleges free, launch an ambitious public works program and plow $3 billion into the international Green Climate Fund. Republican appropriators want a bigger military budget. The president of the American Enterprise Institute has advocated a package of tax credits to help the middle class and provide an alternative to President Obama’s health plan, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich wants to double the National Institutes of Health budget.
But if past is prologue, none of this will come to pass. Instead, Congress on Wednesday passed a continuing resolution, effectively kicking the budget ball down the road until Dec. 11. At that point, a new House speaker, unlikely to compromise, could very well do the same thing: block a budget deal and kick the ball down the road again.
Obama may be trying to make the fourth quarter — or late innings — of his presidency count, but when it comes to the federal budget, his presidency may be just as over as the Washington Nationals’ baseball season. It is possible that, faced with a recalcitrant House, the administration might never get another budget passed, limping along with a series of continuing resolutions instead.
For now, a continuing resolution is being greeted with relief on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It will avert a shutdown of the federal government and clear the way for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to spend the last month of his speakership building a modest legacy of his own.
Obama administration officials expect, or hope, that Boehner will achieve at least three things that have eluded him so far: a multiyear fix for the Highway Trust Fund, a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, and an increase in the federal debt ceiling. But to do so, Boehner will have to rely on nearly unanimous Democratic support and the backing of about 30 or more Republicans willing to part ways with the rest of the caucus and the incoming leadership. And the clock is running.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday raised the bar even higher for Boehner. McConnell said he and Boehner would also try to strike a two-year deal locking in “topline” spending goals, raising the spending caps written into the Budget Control Act of 2011 — and sidestepping the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration designed to enforce those caps.
Doing that won’t be easy, though. Many (but not all) Republicans want to raise military spending, but Obama remains adamant that nonmilitary and military discretionary spending (which excludes entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare) must be raised in equal amounts. The administration and Congress have been sparring over this since January. Now McConnell, who would need the House speaker’s support, has just one month left before a new, less compromising speaker takes over.
The Obama administration thinks that one first step might be an effort to extend the Highway Trust Fund, which has been patched 34 times in 10 years and will run out of money later this year without action. McConnell and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have drawn up an extension (with annual spending increases of 5 percent) for six years, but providing only three years of funding. That funding is a hodgepodge, including the sale of some oil from the 700 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But in July, however, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said he would oppose the Senate bill.
The transportation deal could also include a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a touchstone issue for conservative lawmakers who call it corporate welfare. It isn’t much welfare; the bank has an excellent lending record — a 0.175 percent default rate as of September 2014 and a 50 percent recovery rate on defaulted loans — and the appropriation for about $110 million covers administrative expenses.
But the bank is opposed by a strong coalition of tea party groups, conservative organizations (many backed by the Koch brothers) and lawmakers such as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority leader and the most likely Boehner successor. McCarthy, who in 2012 voted to renew the bank’s charter, said in July on Fox News that “it’s something the private sector can be able to do.”
If Boehner and his loyal Republican allies can’t win enough support for Ex-Im, then the administration holds out little hope for reauthorization later. Boehner might first allow a vote purely on Ex-Im that would not pass the Senate, then package Ex-Im with the highway spending. That way, some Republicans can say they voted against Ex-Im before they voted for it. (Democrats used a similar maneuver earlier this year to drum up support for a trade bill.)
The administration also expects Boehner to deal with the debt ceiling, which the federal government will hit soon. A senior administration official said recently that the Treasury Department was confident that it had enough funds for October and a bit beyond, but figures about new receipts were still coming in.
But all this legislation seems like thin gruel compared with the clarion call of the budget proposal Obama unveiled in February.
Corporate tax reform is one item that fell by the wayside. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew insisted at a Brookings Institution event early in the year that the administration would be able to negotiate a deal with congressional Republicans that would involve corporate tax reform with an infrastructure spending package — paying for repairs to roads, bridges, pipes and ports with a windfall from a change that would bring revenue from previously untaxed foreign earnings being held overseas.
But a senior administration official said last month that such hopes were naive. He said that the administration believed that the desire to do something more ambitious on infrastructure spending would generate support for tax reform, but that turned out to be wrong.
The spending side of the budget is also littered with abandoned hopes and ideas. In a recent speech to the Business Roundtable, Obama said — beseechingly — that “I do not expect to get 100 percent of what I want in any conversation, including with my wife. But I do expect us to stay focused on why we’re here. . . . We’re not supposed to be impeding progress. We’re supposed to be advancing progress, accelerating it.”
Federal budgets never end up looking much like they do when they are unveiled. And the process has been breaking down since 1990, when then-minority whip Gingrich (R-Ga.) helped persuade more than half of the House Republicans to vote against a budget backed by their own chief, Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), and the Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
In 1990, budget negotiators met in seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base so that it would be difficult to point to the parents of unpopular items. It was half in jest referred to as budget-making by “immaculate conception.” In the end, however, it didn’t matter. Piecing together budgets is a messy business.