Whitehouse Remarks on the Senate Budget Process

I think there are lots of ways we can try to work together to make this a meaningful exercise again. If not, we should just jettison this stupid committee.

Mr. Chairman, here we go again. In a bipartisan tradition, we are here on a budget that is little more than a messaging document for the majority party. To amplify on Senator Kaine’s remarks, there are actually about 40 seats in this room and there are now about one, two, three, four, five, six, seven people sitting in them. There’s the world’s smallest press table over there with the world’s most bored press corp. reporting on the world’s most useless hearing. And we’ve gotten ourselves into this pickle on our own.

This budget has no hope of passing the House, which makes this year’s mark-up especially insignificant. Tomorrow we will be voting on meaningless deficits neutral reserve fund amendments, sort of glorified sense of the Senate amendments, and then we will have a party line vote and the majority will pass its resolution. It’s groundhog day and its useless. Now, I strongly oppose the policies that are reflected in the majority party’s budget. I think they are a disaster and a disgrace to be blunt. But I’m really concerned, as I think all of us should be, about how broken our budget process has become.

There is virtually no chance that both chambers will agree to a common budget resolution this year. Even if they did, the budget resolution would have little force or effect.  As a concurrent resolution, the congressional budget does not raise the statutory spending caps, so we’ll need a separate deal on spending caps for the appropriators to be able to do their work. The budget resolution doesn’t raise the debt limit. I’ve spoken about the debt limit before. The debt limit is like having a bear trap in your bedroom. If you’re lucky, you will not step in it, but with one stupid misstep, you’re in for one hell of an injury. The budget process does nothing to neutralize that threat.

Last year, Senator Perdue and I served on the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. We worked for nearly a year with 14 bipartisan and bicameral members on a proposal to improve the congressional budget process and to give the Senate budget committee a more meaningful role. One idea which did well in that committee is to establish an optional off-ramp in this budget committee for a bipartisan budget. Create a process so that if we could agree on a bipartisan budget, there is a path for it. We don’t even have that. This is partisan in many respects by virtue of the rules and habits of this committee. We can fix that. Maybe we can’t get a good bipartisan budget, but we damn well ought to try. And we ought to have a mechanism to do that. So, I’ll speak more about that when I relate tomorrow, when I do my amendment to do a deficit neutral reserve fund on the budget process. There were congressional politics that interrupted the work of that select committee, but I’m working with Senator Perdue and my cosponsor Senator Blunt on legislation that I hope will be considered by the Senate Budget Committee to explore a variety of reforms including a hearing on the Joint Select Committee’s work.

I want to take a minute to give a congratulations to Chairman Enzi who, in addition to being a particularly gracious and kind and good colleague, is also a fellow advocate for reform of the Budget Committee and I think there are lots of ways we can try to work together to make this a meaningful exercise again. There is no better signal that this does not matter than the fact that nobody shows up for it as Senator Kaine pointed out. So, this mark-up is an exercise is political messaging sadly and we’re unfortunately sending out, I think, a terrible message about blowing up the national debt with $1.9 trillion dollars in tax cuts, most of which is for very wealthy people, big corporations, and foreign investors, thanks a bunch. And now we are facing the usual talk about deficit reduction through spending cuts on Medicare and Medicaid.  The budget expressly protects millions of dollars for the likes of the Koch Brothers, while calling for 51 billion in  cuts to programs for low-income Americans. This is like Robin Hood in reverse and its plenty of reason to oppose this budget. But, let’s set all of that aside because none of it actually matters in the long run.

We can exchange our usual barbs during the week ahead, but we also have the prospect of turning this committee into one that does real work and if we’re going to do that what we’re going to need to do is not just talk about appropriated spending, but talk about tax spending, talk about health care spending, and talk about revenues because you don’t even get to your budget arithmetically if you’re not looking at those constituent parts of it.

We’ve got to figure out what a suitable debt to GDP ratio looks like, a sustainable debt to GDP ratio, we’ve got to figure out how long it takes to get from where we are to there. And we’ve got to set some glide slopes, some alarms, some barriers, to guide us on the path from the unsustainable position we are in now to a sustainable GDP to debt ratio. I suspect if we did that work, before we got to the sustainable GDP to debt ratio, markets and the world would be happy with us because for once we’d be taking out role here seriously and be working in the arithmetically necessary way to get to a sustainable budget.

I think we can do this Mr. Chairman. You have been a terrific ally in trying to do this and I look forward to working with you to get this fixed.

If not, we should just jettison this stupid committee.