US needs open debate on budget

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, has been complaining for years that his Democratic colleagues would not pass a budget.

They finally did in March, and it became apparent immediately why they had not bothered to do so before.

The budgets passed by the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate are, of course, radically different. Legislative procedure requires such differences to be hammered out in a conference committee. In order to create a conference committee, the Senate must appoint committee members. Usually, the step is a minor one involving unanimous consent.

Not this time. Several Republican senators are blocking the appointment of committee members. Without a committee, there can be no budget.

To his credit, Sessions is calling for regular order. He demanded Democrats pass a budget, and now he wants Republicans to allow the conference committee to go forward.

Tea-party Republicans including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas; Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are spoiling Sessions’ long-standing call for budget discussions. The inefficient result almost certainly will be a fifth consecutive continuing resolution, which overspends on some programs and underspends on others.

More important, the tea-party-aligned senators are preventing the nation from having an honest debate.

The budget is more than a bunch of numbers. It is a document intended to balance federal revenue and expense. Through their elected representatives, this is the time that Americans come to grip with their distaste for taxes and their desire to maintain government services. It is, in other words, the document that determines what size government America wants.

Ever since the tea party gained political prominence in the elections of 2010, Republicans have proclaimed the deficit is a result not of inadequate revenue but excessive spending. Mathematically, of course, it’s not so simple. While it is true the nation cannot indefinitely operate at a deficit, it also is true there are two ways to reduce a deficit. One is to cut spending. The other is to increase revenue.

Poll after poll demonstrates the political complexity of the issue. A large majority of Americans express their belief that the federal government is too big. Large majorities also, however, support the programs that consume most of the budget. Indeed, GOP leaders invariably fight to maintain spending for their own constituents even as they call for overall cuts.

Cruz and Rubio don’t want to have this debate. By blocking budget negotiations, they are trying to impose their inflexible desire for small government on a majority that agrees federal debt needs to come down, but wants to see details. Most Americans, according to multiple polls, suspect additional revenue must be part of the mix. Cutting expenses is desirable in the abstract, but Americans need specifics.

Sessions has it right. He properly demanded that the Senate pass a budget, but he recognizes open negotiations between the House and Senate are an important step as this representative democracy grapples with the best way to reduce debt.

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Filed under Conservatism, Deficit, Tax reform

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