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Sunday, May 19, 2013, was one of the saddest and most notorious moments in the sordid history of the federal budget.
Let's start from the beginning.
It's December 2012 and House Republicans are facing a number of politically very difficult and unpalatable choices because taxes will go up automatically on January 1, the sequester will go into effect on January 2 and the by-now- commonplace-but-still-called "extraordinary" measures the Treasury has been using for several months to deal with the problems caused by not raising the debt ceiling are about to be exhausted.
The tax problem was dealt with by agreeing to a smaller increase than was set to happen under current law and then blaming the White House for it. The sequester was postponed until March 1 when both the GOP and the administration thought that the threat of cuts to domestic and military programs, respectively, would cause the other to back down.
But it was the unique and disgraceful way the debt ceiling was handled that deserves the scorn.
There was a time when a $200+ billion reduction in the federal budget deficit would have been big news and hailed as a singular achievement worthy of either fiscal sainthood or a dance-on-the-table party...or both.
Yet yesterday's Congressional Budget Office report showing that the fiscal 2013 federal deficit will be $642 billion, $203 billion less than CBO's previous estimate of $845 billion, did not create any spontaneous cannonizations or celebrations. It also didn't change the still-stalemated and crisis-oriented federal budget debate by even a small amount.
The bottomline: It's in almost no one's interest to be happy about the budget news that should have made everyone happier.
What do you call the effort that will be made in the House of Representatives this week to pass a budget-related bill that will never be enacted, won't work as promised even if it somehow does get signed into law and uses the legislative process for purely political purposes?
"Typical" may be the most common answers. My suggestion? That tried-and-true federal budget phrase so often used to complain about federal spending: "Waste, fraud and abuse."
The legislation is the Full Faith and Credit Act, a bill that supposedly would make payments to federal bond holders the priority if the federal debt ceiling isn't raised and the government doesn't have enough cash to pay all its bills when they come due. The legislation would allow the Treasury to borrow more than allowed by the statutory debt ceiling to make these payments.
Last August and September, I did a series of eight posts about how, contrary to Tea Party and John Boehner assertions, federal spending was actually very popular. As I said at the time, Americans don't want less government; they just want government that costs less.
The latest installment -- episode 9 -- happened last week when the air traffic control problems caused by the sequester were fixed in what by congressional standards was warp speed.
Faced with an immediate backlash from flyers, Congress and the White House enacted legislation that fixed the problems less than a week after the furloughs caused long delays in the skies and long security lines at the airports.
Yes...Flyers are a relatively elite group relative to the population at large. Yes...this is a group that has more influence and a larger megaphone than the average voter. And yes...the delays were easier for the media to cover and so were more visible than sequester-related reductions in other programs.
I've been meaning to ask this question for a while: Isn't this the equivalent of a tax increase?
Here's the story.
The sequester spending cuts forced the superintendent of Yellowstone to decide not to clear the winter snow from the park's road as early as it typically had been plowed in the past because...well...it will eventually melt as the weather gets warmer anyway. That seems like a perfect solution to the sequester-caused spending cut except for the businesses in and around the park. No plowing meant no tourists, and that meant much less business.
According to this story by Mark Barabak in the Los Angeles Times, the prospect of lower sales convinced many of the tourist-related businesses around Yellowstone to pay for the plowing. The Cody and Jackson Wyoming Chambers of Commerce raised $170,000 to get the snowed plowed.
Wasn't this the equivalent of a tax increase for those people who paid to have the snow cleared two weeks early?
As I posted on March 1, the sequester -- the across-the-board spending cuts ordered by the Budget Control Act-- would only become real for most voters when the predictions of the impact of the reductions actually started to have a effect on their lives.
Although some people felt it almost immediately, any budget analyst worth his or her salt knew that the real pain was always going to come when federal programs that were labor intensive started to implement furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes and the services they provided had to be curtailed. That was always going to take a month or more because of the process that needs to be followed to notify employees.
But the fact that labor-intensive programs didn't reduce services immediately when the sequester began on March 1 never meant that it wasn't coming. It always was and the protests that the White House was playing fiscal chicken little were simply wrong.
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who stopped being the co-chairs of a failed deficit reduction commission at the end of 2010, are at it again. At some point today they will unveil yet another B-S plan they say will reduce the deficit and debt to manageable levels.
Never mind that they completely failed in 2010 to get their own commission to agree to what they recommended.
Never mind that since the B-S commission failed, Congress has overwhelmingly rejected several efforts that supposedly were based on what the two co-chairs recommended.
And never mind that after these repeated failures neither Bowles nor Simpson have any standing to offer a a new plan that is so politically toxic it has no chance of (1) being taken seriously, (2) jump starting negotiations or (3) having any positive impact whatsoever.
Watching Bowles and Simpson fight for relevancy in the federal budget debate these days is a bit like a rock band from a previous era going on tour but having to play in much smaller venues because its audience is so tiny that the arenas make no sense.
I decided not to comment immediately on the Obama 2014 released last week because I thought the usual instant micro analysis of what the president proposed was likely to be largely besides the point..
The Obama 2014 budget has far less to do with what was proposed than almost any other presidential budget in history. It's real purpose...and value...comes from understanding it as a document designed to drive a wedge between House and Senate Republicans.
To a certain extent it's hard to understand why more of the people who comment on the federal budget -- that is, almost all of Washington -- didn't get the fact that the individual proposals in the Obama plan weren't the big story. Regardless of the reasons for it being so late (some were legitimate, some were not), a president's budget that's sent to Congress more than two months after the statutory deadline and after the House and Senate have already adopted their own budget resolutions should never be analyzed in the same way as other presidential budgets have been. It simply won't -- or can't -- have the same micro impact on the budget debate even if it was going to declared dead on arrival anyway.