Budget Dreams, Budget Nightmares

If you are reading this, I have two things to say to you. First, congratulations on being among the tiny portion of Americans that care enough to learn what politicians are doing with our national budget. Second, get a life and do something constructive with your time.

The federal budget is a subject guaranteed to elicit the snooze reflex in anyone not afflicted with a wonkishness gene that, when activated, causes the possessor to obsess over details ordinary folk would find torture to read. This is especially true since when you add all those details together, you get a document that usually has as much to do with reality as a Boomer LSD flashback.

The truth is, the federal budget is not really a "budget" in the same way you think of your household budget. Most of us have a good idea how much we will have available every month to spend on food and other necessities as well as pay the bills and, if we're very lucky and frugal, put some aside for retirement. What's left over is usually spent on a family outing to the movie theater or Goofy Golf.

The federal budget is a little different. Firstly, it is guaranteed there will be nothing left over. No Goofy Golf for our congressmen. Secondly, we really have no idea of the exact amount that will be coming in to pay the bills. For example, back in 2006, the feds were just a little off in their calculations on revenue. About $130 billion more was collected than the projections indicated. While this may be something to celebrate, it highlights the guessing game played on both sides of the ledger by Congress when trying to figure a budget.

Theodore H. White referred to the budget not as a blueprint but as an untidily wrapped package that contained the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, and the competing, clashing interests of a large and diverse nation. It is the most political document published by Congress. It can hardly be anything else given the fact that the federal budget is crafted, debated, and passed in a most dishonest fashion with accounting tricks galore and hocus-pocus performed with Social Security in order to hide the actual deficits we are running.

There is simply no way for the ordinary mind to grasp what President Obama or the congressional Republicans want to spend to fund next year's government functions.  The difference between  the $3.5 trillion that Obama and the Democrats want and the $3.2 trillion the GOP says we can live with is a pittance, a drop in the bucket when we are looking at trillion dollar deficits every year as far as the eye can see under the Democrats' spending regime. While it is true the Republican numbers are slightly better when taken as a whole over the next decade (they would spend $3.4 trillion less), their deficits are in excess of $500 billion for the foreseeable future and depend on growth in the economy that shows more optimism than a fan of the Chicago Cubs believing his sorry excuse for a team will make it to the World Series this year.

This might be a good time to mention that funding for the Treasury's Financial Stabilization Act to deal with the bad assets of banks is not included in either budget. Add $500-$1 trillion to those brain-numbing numbers above for a truer picture of what we're in for.

The budget currently being crafted in the House and Senate by Democrats, when laid alongside the Republican alternative unveiled yesterday, offers a sharp difference in the size of Mr. White's untidily wrapped package as well as what both parties think the American people want from government. The Democrats are loading up their budget with goodies for education, the environment, transportation, and their crown jewel -- a huge health care reform package that will cost more than the defense budget.

The Republicans seek to tax less, spend less, and reform some entitlements. A thumbnail sketch of their plan:

Deficits/Debt

The Republican budget achieves lower deficits than the Democratic plan in every year, and by 2019 yields half the deficit proposed by the president. By doing so, it controls government debt: Under this plan, debt held by the public is $3.6 trillion less during the budget period.

Spending

The Republican budget gives priority to national defense and veterans' health care. It freezes all other discretionary spending for five years, allowing it to grow modestly after that. It also places all spending under a statutory spending cap backed up by tough budget enforcement.

Energy

The Republican budget lays a firm foundation to position the United States to meet three important strategic energy goals: reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, deploying more clean and renewable energy sources free of greenhouse gases, and supporting economic growth. The budget accomplishes these things by rejecting the president's cap-and-trade scheme, by opening exploration on our nation's oil and gas fields, and by investing the proceeds in a new, clean energy trust fund, infrastructure, and further deficit reduction.

Entitlements

The Republican budget also takes steps towards fulfilling the mission of health and retirement security, in part by making these programs fiscally sustainable. The budget moves towards making quality health care affordable and accessible to all Americans by strengthening the relationship between patients and their doctors, not the dictates of government bureaucrats.

I have a better chance of being opening day third baseman for the Chicago White Sox than this alternative budget has of passing Congress and becoming law. So, why bother? Why have the committee minority staff spent thousands of hours toiling over a budget that will, at best, be an historical curiosity in the Barack Obama Memorial Wonk Museum someday?

Paul Ryan, ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee, explains:

As the opposition party, we believe this moment must be met by offering the American people a different way forward -- one based on our belief that America is an exceptional nation, and we want to keep it that way. Our budget applies our country's enduring first principles to the problems of our day. Rather than attempting to equalize the results of peoples' lives and micromanaging their affairs, we seek to preserve our system of protecting our natural rights and equalizing opportunity for all. The plan works to accomplish four main goals: 1) fulfill the mission of health and retirement security; 2) control our nation's debts; 3) put the economy on a path of growth and leadership in the global economy; and 4) preserve the American legacy of leaving the next generation better off.

Like the Democratic budget, it is a political document and reflects the GOP's basic belief in an agenda that has remained unchanged since 1980: low taxes, high defense spending, and smaller government.

Ross Douthat finds the budget quaint:

But sometimes naiveté is just naiveté. Sometimes, putting your least-popular ideas together in one agenda just makes it easier for your opponents to run circles around you. And right now, I think the country could use a right-of-center party that paid a little more attention to its messaging, and a little less attention to its blueprints for the ideal small-government society.

That's one way to look at it. But Douthat fails to take into account the state of the GOP and why a document like this was absolutely necessary to reaffirm "first principles" --  even if it beggars belief as far as its numbers are concerned and has no chance of passage. The Democratic budget reflects a party in the ascendancy. It is a confident party, swaggering across history's canvass painting a future that is free from want,  throwing around money, sticking its nose into the business of business, dictating to the CEOs of huge corporations, all in the fervent belief they are saving America -- even saving capitalism. They believe their ideas triumphed at the polls and that their mandate for "change" is broad and deep.

The current state of the Republican Party offers a sharp contrast to the Democrats. There is no confidence, no swagger. There is a tentativeness to their actions, even a plaintiveness to their arguments. They too, want to save America. But not so much from the current financial crisis as from what Ryan believes is "the third and final great wave of progressivism."

Their coalition fractured and their future prospects dimmed by changing demographics and a damaged brand, Republicans needed a statement that incorporated their core beliefs -- if only to remind them who they were and where they came from.

In that sense, the alternative budget is more akin to a manifesto than it is a blueprint for spending. The GOP needed this. And despite the expected ridicule from the Democrats and the short shrift the plan received in the press, as a starting point for a way to regain its stature as a serious party with serious ideas, it's a fine start.