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Think of the federal budget as an expression of government priorities described by numbers and words. This week, we’ve seen two widely divergent views of the federal role in people’s lives, one from the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee and the other from the Democratic-controlled Senate Budget Committee.
When you look at the numbers alone, you can see a wide, but potentially bridgeable, gap. When you read the words, you begin to grasp why our politics are so toxic.
First the numbers:
The Senate panel would have the federal government spend an average of 21.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product over the next decade. The House panel would spend about an average of 19.5 percent. That’s a difference of about $6 trillion over 10 years.
The Senate committee would have the federal government raise an average of about 19.3 of GDP in revenues over the period. The House panel targets 18.8 percent. That’s a difference of about $1.1 trillion over the decade. In 2023, the Senate plan would collect about 19.8 percent of GDP in revenues, the House plan 19.1 percent
And the bottom line: The Senate panel would have government run an annual deficit of about 2.4 percent. The House panel would bring the federal books nearly to balance over the entire period, with an average deficit of about 0.6 percent. By 2023, the Senate plan would maintain the deficit at about 2.4 percent while the House plan would create a small surplus.
Looked at as numbers alone, the spending gap is quite large but the revenue targets are not that far apart. The gap seems especially bridgeable since both sides have embraced the idea of cutting tax preferences from the revenue code. Closing a gap of a few tenths of GDP doesn’t seem out of reach.
At least not until you read the words in these two budgets. That’s when you get a sense of how far apart the two parties really are.
It is not an overstatement to say the House budget panel sees government as the enemy of the people, poised to destroy all that individuals build for themselves. Thus, its goal is to remake the very role of government by slashing planned spending and restraining revenues.
This is from the introduction of the fiscal document prepared by panel chair Paul Ryan (R-WI):
“Pressed for cash, the government will…crank up the printing presses. The final stage of this intergenerational theft will be the debasement of our currency. Government will cheat us of our just rewards. Our finances will collapse. The economy will stall. The safety net will unravel.”
It is similarly not an overstatement to say the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Patty Murray (D-WA), would largely maintain the status quo, with government continuing to play the activist, redistributionist role that so offends conservatives.
“Government can’t solve every problem, but…it can and should work to create jobs, support the middle-class, and offer a hand up to families that need some support while they work to get back on their feet.”
Not surprisingly, these competing visions lead the two committees to very different priorities: For the GOP-controlled House panel, it is simply this: “We owe the American people a balanced budget.”
For the Senate committee it is this: "The highest priority…is to create the conditions for job creation, economic growth, and prosperity.”
Indeed, the first half of the panel’s fiscal plan is all about enhancing government programs. You’ve got to get to page 56 before the 113-page document addresses the deficit."
In truth, neither of these plans will ever become law, and neither would be sustainable if it did given the fiscal pressures of an aging Baby Boom generation. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped either side from digging their ideological foxholes even deeper.
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