It's one of the most remarkable statistics to come out of Washington in a long time: Tuesday marks the 1,056th day since Congress passed a yearly budget for the federal government.
The fault does not lie with Congress as a whole. The House has passed budgets. Senate Republicans have tried to do the same. But after passing a budget resolution in 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to allow passage of a new budget in 2010, 2011, and, it appears, 2012 as well.
"We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year," Reid told reporters last month, arguing that legislation setting limits on spending is sufficient.
"The fact is, you don't need a budget," agreed fellow Democrat and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer a few weeks ago. "We can adopt appropriations bills. We can adopt authorization policies without a budget. We already have an agreed-upon cap on spending."
In fact, the lawmakers are required by law to pass a budget each year. That's made conspicuously clear by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. But proposing and passing a budget can cause lots of problems. It can force a party to take potentially unpopular stands on critical issues. How much should the government spend on national defense? On health care? On social programs? As Reid and his allies see it, better to just ignore the whole thing.
When Democrats refused to pass a budget in 2010, Republicans thought Reid, the target of Republican attacks over the stimulus, Obamacare, and bailouts, was just trying to limit damage in that year's midterm elections. But then 2011 came along, with no elections, and Reid did it again, or, more accurately, didn't do it again.
All of which left it unclear where the party that controls the Senate stands on the profoundly important issue of federal spending. "A budget is values," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and an adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "When you put together a budget, you display where you're going to put the nation's resources and what you care about."
All that is backdrop to the Republicans' new effort to put forward a budget that addresses some of the most urgent problems facing the U.S. On Tuesday morning, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will unveil a new proposal that would address Medicare's impending insolvency, cut taxes, impose spending cuts, reform a number of entitlements and balance the budget at some future date that depends on what assumptions of future economic growth one accepts. It's an audacious and far-reaching plan.
Ryan discussed his budget with a group of journalists Monday. The session was off the record, but it's fair to say Ryan remains steadfast in his belief that coming forward with a plan that could actually deal with problems like Medicare, even if it results in Democratic attack ads and mockery, is better than ignoring a fiscal crisis that could lead the United States into a European-style financial emergency.
Ryan believes Democrats will suffer politically if they continue to simply refuse to pass a budget or offer solutions to unavoidable problems. But last year, it was Ryan who was the target of unremitting attacks from Democrats, including the notorious throw-grandma-off-a-cliff ad in which a Ryan figure was seen pushing a wheelchair-bound elderly woman to her death as part of the GOP plot to destroy Medicare.
This year, with an election eight months away, there will be more grandmas thrown off cliffs, and more accusations that Ryan is planning to end the world as we know it. But Holtz-Eakin says Republicans are better prepared. "The mistake that was made last year was that they presented the American people with an elegant solution to a problem people didn't know existed," he says. "What we've done in the time in between is to explain to them that we have a big problem, that in fact we could be Greece."
The bottom line is that there is no way Ryan can sell his plan, or even part of his plan, unless he can convince a majority of Americans that the country, and not anyone's grandmother, is headed over a cliff. The message of the Democrats' 1,056-day stall is that nothing needs to be done. Ryan has risked a lot to argue that that is wrong, and this could be the year his message is finally heard.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.