Federal Budget (US)

Congressional Memo: For the Senate’s Budget Blueprint, It’s Better Late Than Never

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It is the same approach that Republicans used in their failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

In theory, lawmakers are supposed to pass an annual budget resolution to provide a blueprint for federal spending and revenues. The document is not signed by the president and does not hold the force of law, but it is an important step in what, in theory, should be an orderly annual budget process.

But in a development that has shocked no one on Capitol Hill, this year’s budget process, for the 2018 fiscal year that began Oct. 1, has not proceeded with any great efficiency.

Congress is supposed to adopt a budget resolution by April 15, giving the House and Senate Appropriations Committees plenty of time to proceed with their work on spending bills before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

Instead, the Senate is moving on a budget for a fiscal year that has already begun.

“Look at the date,” Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and a member of the Budget Committee, said on Wednesday.

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Senator Patty Murray of Washington on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

“We are debating a budget for fiscal year 2018 months too late and more than two weeks into the fiscal year we are supposed to be budgeting for,” Ms. Murray noted.

Senators are not even pretending that plotting out the government’s finances is the task at hand, even after the budget deficit reached an estimated $668 billion in the fiscal year that just ended, up $82 billion from the year before.

“Let’s be candid about what this is about,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania and a member of the Budget Committee. “The budget resolution is about giving us the tool to later this year pass tax reform.”

In other words, the budget is not really about the budget.

“It’s a misnomer,” Mr. Toomey said.

In fact, as senators debated the budget resolution this week, they have focused on the merits of the coming tax bill, not spending levels and programs to fund and defund.

In that sense, it has been a legislative debate about legislation that does not yet exist. But that has not tamped down the strong feelings among Republicans and Democrats alike, with Republicans expressing great hopes of powerful economic growth and Democrats warning against providing tax cuts to the rich.

Before the budget is approved, the Senate will undertake a tedious ritual known as a “vote-a-rama,” in which senators can offer an endless series of amendments.

The vote-a-rama provides the minority party with a chance to force the majority to take politically uncomfortable votes. As Republicans lay the groundwork for their tax bill, Democrats plan to extract as much political pain as they can.

The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said the amendments proposed by Democrats this week would shine a light on the Republican tax plan.

“The more people see of this tax bill, the less they will like it,” he said.

The Senate’s budget document will still need to be reconciled with the House’s blueprint, which lawmakers in that chamber approved Oct. 5.

In the meantime, Republican senators are not urging anyone to pick up the budget blueprint if they are in need of reading material.

“Every budget that’s put out by either side of the aisle is a total joke,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, observed recently. “It’s not worth the paper that it’s written on.”

“To spend more than five minutes looking at the budget,” he added, “is like spending five minutes too much time on it.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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