Democrats hoping to avoid an inner-party fight in a presidential election year are likely to skip passing a budget resolution in 2020.
A year ago, Democrats were barely able to pass their resolution out of committee, and they nixed a vote on the House floor over worries that progressives pushing for lower defense and higher domestic spending would sink it.
“I wouldn’t bet on doing it,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said of a resolution this year.
Over the summer, congressional leaders from both parties and the White House struck a deal to increase legal spending caps for both 2020 and 2021. Having an agreement already in place on how much money will be spent on defense and domestic priorities for the year argues against doing a budget resolution, Yarmuth said.
“It’s more unlikely than likely, because with the top-line numbers already established, the appropriators are probably going to do something that’s pretty similar to what this year’s was,” he said.
Republicans repeatedly hammered Democrats last year for failing to pass a budget, and continue to criticize their inability to perform one of the basic duties prescribed in the budget process.
“We’re training the Congress to think that this is an appropriate process to do the budgetary work of the of the country and it is not,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), the Budget Committee’s top Republican.
“It’s a lazy man’s approach to budgeting: Just let the leadership pick the numbers, get those pluck out of the air, and then everybody just go along with it,” he added.
Last year, Democrats included a considerable hike for domestic spending in their budget resolution, but still faced opposition from progressives who saw the concurrent spike in defense spending as overkill. The White House and Republicans pressed for the increase in defense spending.
Leading progressives on the Budget Committee, such as Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), offered amendments to level off defense spending, arguing that it was the best way to stop endless foreign interventions. The amendments failed, and the budget resolution was approved in committee despite progressive “no” votes.
Progressives argued that Democrats should take a stronger position in the House ahead of negotiations with the GOP. They had the votes to potentially sink the resolution on the House floor, causing leadership to pull it from the floor at the last minute.
But Democrats brush aside suggestions that their inability to agree on a budget resolution demonstrates fractures in the party.
“I’m not, like, a great advocate on the budget because I think so often it’s relatively meaningless,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a leading progressive.
He argued that voters are more concerned with results, and pointed to increases in domestic spending on health care, education, environmental protection and the State Department as significant wins for progressives more important than battling over arcane budget issues.
“I have no idea why we have an F-in’ Budget Committee here period, because it does not work in any kind of functional way,” Pocan said. “If you could show me 15 people who live outside the Beltway who actually care, that could be relevant.”
Republicans say the budget resolution deals with issues beyond the 12 annual appropriations bills Congress must pass to keep the government running each year, which represents only about a third of federal spending.
It can be used to tackle the 70 percent that comes under the rubric of automatic, mandatory spending, through a special process called reconciliation. That process can require congressional committees to scale back mandatory spending by set amounts.
A combination of GOP-sponsored tax cuts and bipartisan spending deals have pushed annual deficits into the $1 trillion range, and the national debt beyond $23 trillion.
A study released this week from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found that bills President Trump had signed into law would add a combined $4.7 trillion to the debt through 2029.
“I think the only way to really manage our way out of this fiscal mess we’re in right now is to actually do a budget resolution and use the tools in that toolbox to include reconciliation to make changes on the mandatory side,” Womack said.
Such action on mandatory spending is unlikely to gain traction through the budget process absent some sort of bipartisan deal to tackle the debt. For their part, Democrats slammed past GOP budget proposals that they said slashed health and anti-poverty programs, which make up the bulk of mandatory spending.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an appropriator, said he expects the process to move along without a hitch despite the budget resolution given the agreement on top-line number.
“It’s probably not as relevant as it normally would be,” he said, predicting that the House would pass its bills by summer and that Congress could send bills to Trump’s desk before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, a rare move.
But the symbolism of failing to pass a budget still resonates, he added.
“I think it’s always a problem when you can’t pass a budget, when you can’t even get a budget out of your own committee when you’re the majority,” he said.