Budget looms over midterm elections

May 10, 2010

Republicans are slamming House Democratic budget writers for failing to do their job, a strategy they say will resonate with voters this year because cash-strapped families across the country are making tough spending choices themselves.

“It’s time for Chet Edwards to stand up, show some leadership and demand that Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and the Democrats take some responsibility and pass a budget,” Texas Republican Bill Flores said late last month of the veteran Waco Democrat who sits on the House Budget and Appropriations committees.

“It is embarrassing to the voters of the 3rd District that we have an ‘employee’ who is shirking his responsibility to his ‘employers,’” Kentucky Republican Jeff Reetz said of Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a midranking member of the budget panel, in a release last week.

But the most targeted shots are aimed at Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), who will either put all of his colleagues on the spot with a vote on spending, taxes and deficits or become the first budget chairman not to move a plan through the House since the modern budget law was enacted in 1974.

“John Spratt should be … ashamed of his inability to pass a budget,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Sere wrote in a press release last week.

In an election year in which control of the House could turn on a few issues in a handful of close races, the handling of the budget is threatening to become a factor for members of a committee that typically gets little attention outside the Beltway.

Because of his position, Spratt’s the Democratic budget writer most at risk. And it’s likely that his own campaign-year words will haunt him more than any volley fired by his opponent.

In 2006, as Democrats were pushing to take control of the House and Republicans were hamstrung by their own budget woes, he said: “If you can’t budget, you can’t govern.”

Spratt offers a more nuanced view now that his Democrats are in charge. He insists that his party will be able to control spending with or without a budget resolution because of a patchwork of existing and soon-to-be-implemented measures.

He says a relatively new pay-as-you-go budgeting law will hold in check mandatory spending — the “automatic” part of the budget that includes entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. For discretionary spending — the items that Congress appropriates each year — he points to the expected adoption of a “deeming” resolution that would set spending caps in lieu of a budget resolution and the possibility of using the House Rules Committee’s power to enforce limitations on each spending bill.

“We can show that we can govern at the same time that we have a different form of budget resolution,” Spratt said. “I think we say to the American people, ‘Look at the substance rather than the form.’”

Spratt says he’s still leading the charge to write a “traditional” budget resolution. House leaders haven’t yet pulled the plug on the process, but there’s little appetite for a floor fight among the Democratic rank and file. And neither Spratt nor his party’s leaders have found a way to please conservative Blue Dogs who want to cut domestic spending and progressives who don’t.

Spratt, first elected in 1982, faces a tough road to reelection this year. While he beat nominal opposition in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote, Republican presidential nominee John McCain carried his 5th District with 53 percent to Barack Obama’s 46 percent.

Although the practical implications of forgoing a fiscal blueprint are minimal, there are potentially steep political consequences for Spratt and his fellow budget writers no matter what they do.

If they fail to pass a budget, they’ll be portrayed as ineffective. But there could also be peril for other politically vulnerable Democratic lawmakers if they are forced to vote on a blueprint that’s covered in red ink.

The Senate Budget Committee’s version anticipates a deficit of nearly $1.3 trillion in fiscal 2011 — down a bit from the 2010 projection but an eye-popping figure nonetheless.

There’s little evidence to suggest that the failure to finish a joint House-Senate budget hurt incumbents in individual congressional races in 2002, 2004 or 2006, and then-Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) took more flak in his losing 2006 gubernatorial race for the deficit-spending blueprints he wrote than for failing to pass a budget.

But Republican political strategists say this year could be different — and not just because it would be the first time the House didn’t draft its own version at all.

“People are paying more attention now to things they didn’t before, like the debt and the deficit,” said Carl Forti, a veteran Republican message man. “The opportunity is there for the budget issue to be more of a concern than in any previous cycle.”

Edwards, who routinely wins by narrow margins in Texas’s conservative 17th District, doesn’t think voters will focus on the nonbinding congressional budget in November.

“Chet’s constituents care about his work to protect and create jobs for our district, and the latest Flores attack on budget process has gained zero traction in Texas,” Edwards spokeswoman Megan Jacobs said.

The refrain from Democratic leaders right now is simple: “We’re working on it.”

“If they do get a budget, it would be quite an accomplishment, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility,” said James R. Horney, a former congressional budget aide who works at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But the window for action is closing; appropriators can begin moving forward with their spending bills as early as May 15 if a budget is not in place.

Once that happens, what little appetite exists for a budget among rank-and-file Democrats is sure to fade.

If Democrats don’t vote on new numbers, Republicans see a potent and easy-to-explain campaign issue. “Unlike Washington Democrats, the average middle-class family doesn’t have the option of simply deciding not to have a budget because they don’t feel like it,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “You can chalk this up to one more feature of an irresponsible and out-of-touch Democrat majority that Republican candidates will continue to highlight.”

Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon, who is running for the Senate in Louisiana, may have spared himself the brunt of the fiscal-irresponsibility attack by jumping off the House Budget Committee in March, contending that he was spread too thin.

“Given the increased commitments I have made to my state, I resign, effective immediately, from the Committee on the Budget,” he wrote in a letter to the House. “It has truly been a pleasure to work with Chairman Spratt and the many dedicated members that care passionately about getting our nation’s fiscal house in order.”

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