After Four Years, Dem Senate Passes a Budget

A doomed effort defined by crushing taxes and government spending.

After a series of debates beginning Friday afternoon and continuing for almost 13 straight hours, the Democratically-controlled Senate passed its first budget in four years. The $3.7 trillion blueprint for 2014, that contains almost one trillion dollars in tax increases, narrowly passed by a vote of 50-49. Every Republican voted against it, as did four Democrats facing reelection next year. One Senator, Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), was absent. “The Senate has passed a budget,” declared Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) at 4:56 a.m.

The marathon session is called a "vote-a-rama" because the Senate can conduct a series of back-to-back votes far more quickly than normal, due to a 1974 law that limits the time for debate to 50 hours, rather than the unlimited time afforded to other measures. As a result, Senators filed as many as 500 amendments. Only 101 of them were considered, but that still gave both parties a chance to force votes on a series of issues they each favored. Yet because the budget is non-binding, the voting was largely a theatrical exercise, and very little of it is likely to be enacted into law.

It is just as well. The plan calls for an immediate $100 billion to be spent on infrastructure "to bolster the economy," making a mockery of the more than $800 billion in stimulus funds earmarked for shovel-ready jobs in 2009 that did next to nothing on that front, despite being eight times larger. A tax code overhaul that aims to bring in another $975 billion over the next ten years with filibuster-proof legislation. Those taxes are coupled with spending cuts of $875 billion, generated by modest reductions to federal health care programs, domestic agencies and the Pentagon, along with reduced federal borrowing costs.

Yet the net result is tiresomely familiar: ten years from now, the government will still be running a deficit in excess of $500 billion--and more than $5.2 trillion will be added to our already unconscionable $16.7 trillion of national debt.

Nevertheless, Patty Murray was delighted with the result. "The budget we're debating this week puts our middle class families first," she said. "It reflects our pro-growth, pro-middle class agenda that the American people went to the polls in support of just a few months ago." Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the Budget Committee's ranking Republican, saw things quite differently. "Honest people can disagree on policy, but where there can be no honest disagreement is the need to change our nation’s debt course,” he contended. “The singular truth that no one can escape is that the House budget changes our debt course while the Senate budget does not.”

The various amendments that won approval reflected the differing priorities of each party. They dealt with a variety of issues, including such items as raising or lowering taxes, hiring veterans, repealing Obamacare, prohibiting illegal aliens from being eligible for various government programs such as Medicaid, preventing the UN from abridging the Second Amendment, allowing states to collect Internet sales taxes, a redefinition of full-time employment, and a bid to end the mobile phone welfare program.

Three of the more popular amendments dealt with the approval of the Keystone pipeline by a bipartisan vote of 62-37, a 79-20 vote to repeal the medical device tax, and a unanimous vote to end "too big to fail" financial advantages for any "megabank" with more than $500 billion in total assets.

The impetus for passing a budget for the first time in four years was likely the passage of the "No Budget, No Pay" bill which suspended the current debt limit until May 18th, so the federal government could continue to pay its bills. One of the bill's provisions prohibits legislators from getting paid if Congress doesn't pass a budget by April 15. Salaries will either be held in escrow until they do, or resume being paid in January 15, when the current congressional session ends.

Considering the vast differences between this legislation and the House budget passed last Thursday that brings the budget into balance by 2023, but changes the nature of entitlement programs in ways completely anathema to Democrats, it is virtually certain that no budget will be reconciled before the debt ceiling showdown. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) revived a rule ignored in January, stating that any increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by commensurate spending cuts.

Yet even leaving that rule aside, passing a budget by May 18 is still overly optimistic. Thus, the House also passed a continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, which lasts through September. The Senate approved that resolution, and it is expected that the president will sign it once he gets back from his trip to Israel.

In other words, the more things seemingly change, the more they remain the same: barring a miraculous spasm of bipartisanship, government will likely be funded piecemeal--and our unsustainable fiscal trajectory will remain unaltered.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illuminated this undeniable reality. “Although Senate Democrats finally generated a budget after four years, the plan they produced raises taxes, increases spending and debt and never, ever balances,” he cautioned. “The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their Budget Resolution won’t become law.”

Four Democrat Senators up for reelection in 2014 in red or red-leaning states, Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mark Pryor (D-AK), Max Baucus (D-MT) and Mark Begich (D-AK), voted against the measure. It remains the job of voters in each of those four states to determine whether those votes represent a principled stand against runaway government spending, or merely an expedient desire to get reelected.

In the end, the public will have to be satisfied by the fact that Harry Reid and the Democratically-controlled Senate have finally produced something that has eluded them for four years: a budget. That would be the same Harry Reid who blasted president Bush in 2008, when the former president submitted a 3.1 trillion dollar budget, later whittled down to $2.9 trillion, that contained a then-record of $458 billion in deficit spending. “President Bush’s fiscal policies are the worst in our nation’s history-- he has turned record surpluses into record deficits--and this budget is more of the same,” Reid said at the time.

Yet as far as Reid is concerned, passing a $3.7 trillion budget that includes no plan whatsoever to bring spending and revenues into alignment, even as it contains a projected deficit of $700 billion, and adds an additional $5.2 trillion to the national debt, is now considered "a Herculean feat."

Such overt hypocrisy ought to be laughable. Unfortunately,  the seemingly inexorable march towards national bankruptcy this irresponsible budget represents, is no laughing matter.

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