Oddly, the politically charged budget resolutions produced by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan this week represent progress, which says more about the polarized atmosphere in Washington, D.C., than it does about the prospects for a breakthrough.
For the first time in four years, both chambers of Congress have budget blueprints. The Republican-run House has annually pumped out unrealistic resolutions based on delusional assumptions. The Democratic-run Senate hasn’t even bothered, and now we know why. The two sides are so far apart, they might as well be on different planets. Sure seems they weren’t around for the last election.
The House budget aims to balance the budget in 10 years, with the cornerstone being repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of a president whom voters returned to office. The House has voted to repeal the reform 33 times. A 34th vote is ridiculous. The Senate budget doesn’t make a serious attempt to address the nation’s massive debt. Murray notes recent progress in reducing the budget deficit, but it’s projected to resume growing as baby boomers head into retirement. More cutting, please.
Both documents are timid when it comes to Medicare and Social Security, both of which are in need of reform, especially Medicare. Nonpartisan budget watchers such as the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Budget correctly note that the fiscal picture will not brighten as long as Congress flees these budget monsters. The discretionary budget, which excludes entitlements, has already been cut to a level not seen since the Eisenhower administration.
Murray proposes no structural changes to entitlements. Ryan avoids Social Security and delays for a decade any substantial alterations for Medicare. The truth is both will need adjustments, and the sooner the better. The challenge is made all the more difficult when politicians, such as U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, suggest that people shouldn’t expect any changes. In a recent interview with The Spokesman-Review he said, “First of all, let’s set Medicare and Social Security aside. Those are benefits people have earned.”
No, they can’t be set aside. While it’s true that the amount many people collect in Social Security benefits approximates the total they’ve paid in over the years, the trust fund will still need attention for long-term solvency. When it comes to Medicare, health care costs for typical Medicare recipients are about triple their payroll tax contributions. And they weren’t charged at all for the prescription drug benefit that was established in 2006. If a small-government conservative like Risch can’t acknowledge this, then it’s going to be difficult to muster the courage. But Medicare, along with all health care costs, must be addressed.
Now that the two congressional chambers have set down their markers, President Barack Obama is expected to produce his own budget proposal soon. He must be honest about the challenges and realistic about what can pass.
The president once compared compromise to a good piece of music. We’re still waiting for the harmony.