This week, Senate Democrats are set to unveil their first budget proposal in four years. The big question is whether they're going to get serious in addressing the nation's debt problem. The alternative is to keep seeking political advantage by attacking the Republican proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
For years, Democrats have been protecting the nation's premier entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) from any meaningful reforms while advocating tax hikes on wealthier Americans. The inherent problem with this approach is a simple question of math. Republican budgets have acknowledged that major reforms of Medicare are needed to address the nation's long-term fiscal imbalance if taxes are to remain at historical levels. Democrats have refused to admit that their vision of a generous welfare state requires tax hikes not only on the wealthy but also on the middle class -- and perhaps on the poor as well.
As the Congressional Budget Office wrote last month, "Under current law, the aging of the population, the rising costs of health care, and the scheduled expansion in federal subsidies for health insurance will substantially boost federal spending on Social Security and the government's major health care programs, relative to GDP, for the next 10 years and for decades thereafter. Unless the laws governing those programs are changed -- or the increased spending is accompanied by corresponding reductions in other spending, sufficiently higher tax revenues, or a combination of the two -- debt will rise sharply relative to GDP after 2023."
On Tuesday, Ryan will release a budget that achieves balance over the next decade -- something which the Senate Democrats' budget is not expected to do. Admittedly, achieving balance in that short time span is less important than entitlement reform, because even large cuts to discretionary spending will be clawed back in the subsequent decade by the massive projected shortfalls in entitlements. It would be perfectly acceptable for Democrats to lag behind Republicans in achieving balance, so long as they have some sort of plan to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal path for the long term.
Unfortunately, according to National Journal, the forthcoming budget from Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., is "expected to offer only broad outlines of many of the [Democratic] party's usual talking points." According to the magazine, Murray's budget will raise taxes, call for more economic stimulus spending, largely ignore entitlements, and undo the automatic spending cuts of the sequestration. It will also rely on phony savings achieved by not keeping the war in Afghanistan going forever. (Murray could just as easily calculate the savings from not invading Rwanda next year and then use it to create a new Cabinet department.)
It is good to see Democrats finally put out a budget after four years of avoiding the task. But unless it represents a serious attempt to get the nation's debt problem under control, it hardly seems worth the effort.