Budgets by Bach
Can the House and Senate sit down and make music?

Johann Sebastian Bach


Daniel Foster

In addition to being a writer, I am a rank amateur musician with a tenuous grasp on theory and only the shallowest of appreciations for the great classical composers. But for whatever reason — a tic of the iTunes shuffling algorithm, maybe — I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reacquainting myself with the wonderful fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. They remind me (in the way that anything can remind a columnist of anything else) of the budget process we’re currently watching unfold.

Hear me out, hear me out. Fugues open with a single “voice” presenting a melody that is then repeated, in different keys, by one or several other voices. Once that core melodic “subject” has been played in each of the voices, the “exposition” of the fugue is said to be complete, and it moves into a series of “episodes,” usually variations and extrapolations of fragments from the original subject. These employ compositional effects with names like “countersubjects,” “diminutions,” and “false entries,” increasing the intensity and the complexity of the piece until it seems like the auditory processing centers of your brain can take no more, before the fugue finally ends with a satisfying coda.

If the budget battle were a fugue, we’d have just finished the exposition, now that the House, Senate, and the presidential voices have all been introduced. This is major progress, considering that Paul Ryan had basically been playing his ditty alone for years while the White House provided but the faintest of counterpoints, offering up budgets that failed to receive a single vote most years. Now that Patty Murray’s Senate Budget Committee has piped up — a contribution the GOP considered so important they conditioned the lifting of the debt ceiling on it — we can really make some music.

Sure, there will be “diminutions” and “false entries” to come, and the Senate Democrats and House Republicans have already dismissed each others’ budgets as dead letters. But make no mistake, we’re closer to getting a fully composed work on taxes, deficits, and entitlement reform than we’ve been at any time during the Obama era, and that’s true even though — perhaps because — neither the Murray nor the Ryan budget is a great document.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Murray budget never balances. Like, ever. There’s room for debate over how quickly we should reduce the deficit, and even over whether it is or isn’t wise to run small deficits into perpetuity. But people who disagree on those things can still agree that Americans should be asked to pay for the government they get. The Democrats’ budget does not. It raises $975 billion in taxes on top of the revenue the president secured at the end of last year, but it doesn’t raise them enough to ever — that is, ever — pay for all its spending. Indeed, the Murray budget generates $7.3 trillion in new debt in its first ten years, institutionalizing debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent. And it actually increases spending, and the deficit, next year relative to what they would be if we did nothing at all.

Nor does it do any real reform to the tax code or entitlement programs. True, much of the Democrats’ new revenue comes from “closing loopholes,” but by only going after the “wealthiest Americans” — likely to increase the tax code’s complexity, not reduce it. It replaces the sequester with a raft of new revenue measures and only the teeniest of trims to the health-care entitlements that are driving the long-term deficit.

By contrast, the problem with Ryan Budget 3.0 is that it balances too quickly. Gone is the slow-but-steady deficit reduction of the first two Ryan “Roadmaps” — which were already at the very edge of political feasibility — and in their place is a call for ten-year balance that is neither necessary as an economic matter nor possible as a political endeavor. Worse, as Ross Douthat puts it, the Ryan budget commits the GOP to a “weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics” that keeps the president’s tax hikes and misguided Medicare cuts, while watering down the signature Medicare reforms of the earlier Ryan budgets and going small on broader entitlement reform.

But if it’s a grand bargain you want, the fact that the Ryan and Murray budgets are flawed as is could be a good thing. The consensus about the Ryan budget is that Ryan committed to a more absolutist document to mollify House conservatives who were chapped over the tax hikes at the end of last year. The consensus about the Murray budget is that it is leftward of the White House, asking more in new taxes and doing less on entitlements than the president would. In other words, the House and Senate have, by intent or by accident, occupied exactly the positions you’d expect them to at the beginning of negotiations, claiming plenty of ground on their respective flanks for the purpose of having something to trade later.

And now that we’ve heard all the voices, all the points and counterpoints, direct negotiations between the House and Senate are the next logical episode in the budget fugue. We can expect the music to get more intense and complex as lawmakers mount competing PR campaigns, conjure new pay-fors and accounting tricks, and invoke the arcane principles of reconciliation. But can we expect it all to resolve, in the final measure, into a satisfying coda? Maybe. Then again, it’s said that Bach died in the middle of writing a fugue.

— Dan Foster is news editor of National Review Online.