Conrad the Cowardly Budget Chair?

by Andrew Stiles

The good news is that, at long last, some three weeks after House Republicans submitted to the public, marked-up in open hearing and ultimately adopted by a vote on April 15 (a deadline mandated by law) the budget resolution authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) appears set to unveil a Democratic budget proposal early next week, which reportedly includes deficit reduction measures totaling $4 trillion over 10 years. A mark-up hearing could take place as early as Monday. That’s right, he’s no longer missing in action.

It’s a good start, to be sure, given that it’s been more than 700 days since the Democrat-controlled Senate has actually passed a budget. The only problem — the bad news — is that Conrad doesn’t want anyone to know what’s in his proposal — anyone except Senate Democrats, that is. So far, the only people who have been briefed on the contents of Conrad’s budget are member of his own caucus, during a closed-doors lunch meeting earlier this week. The budget chair has given no indication that the public, the press, or even the Republican members of the committee will be allowed to see, much less analyze in detail, the full text of the proposal until the morning of the mark-up hearing. In fact, this is exactly what happened last year, when GOP members’ first look at the Democratic budget came as opening statements were being delivered.

Budget committee Republicans have now sent Conrad two letters (here and here) asking him to release the details of his plan to the public at least 72 hours before it is brought before the committee. “We understand that you have already briefed your caucus on your budget plan,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the top Republican on the committee, wrote in the most recent letter, delivered on Friday. “But with a mark-up only days away it is essential that members on both sides of the aisle are given an opportunity to evaluate the proposal on behalf of those we represent.”

Sessions tells National Review Online that his primary concern is that Conrad’s budget will be a “partisan document” that employs hidden tax hikes and budgetary gimmicks in order to inflate the true amount of deficit reduction, and the Democrat’s refusal thus far to comply with, or even acknowledge the GOP’s requests for transparency certainly does not bode well.

“I have to assume this is a partisan budget, and he does not expect Republican votes because he won’t tell us what’s in it or solicited votes and he hasn’t done anything to indicate that he can win support from Republicans,” Sessions says. “It’s hard to analyze a budget. It’s just a bunch of numbers, it’s really hard to dig in to. We think he ought to explain it with expert staff people on the committee what the numbers mean before we’re asked to proceed on it.”

Sessions is all the more wary in light of a recent analysis by GOP budget staff of President Obama’s revised budget “framework” — outlined in an April 13 speech at George Washington University — which the president alleged would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years (which is odd, because most budget proposals are scored according to a 10-year window; even Conrad thought this was bizarre). However, when all the gimmicks are stripped out and rosy White House projections are replaced with more sober projections from the Congressional Budget Office, the president’s “plan” would actually add $2.2 trillion to the deficit.

“That’s a monumental difference in score,” Sessions says. “It’s stunningly irresponsible.” Even Erskine Bowles, former Clinton chief of staff and co-chair of the president’s deficit commission, says Obama’s “plan” is inadequate compared to the Ryan/GOP budget and “doesn’t stabilize the debt.”

“It will be interesting to see how [Conrad] calculates that $4 trillion,” Sessions says. “I hope that he is going to present a more realistic budget. It’s unthinkable that he would not. If he presents something close to the president’s budget it will be laughed out of the Senate.”

That said, Conrad’s plan is also taking considerable heat from the left for being too conservative. In a telling display of fiscal seriousness, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) laughed off Conrad’s presentation to the caucus as “lots of charts,” and cautioned Democrats to hold off signing on to any specific plan “until we know what the endgame is.”

At least Senate Democrats have actually seen what’s in Conrad’s budget. Will he extend that same courtesy to the American public before members are asked to vote on it?

“I don’t think the American people…believe that secret negotiations, bringing up a bill that affects every American’s life and ramming it through the budget committee before people really have a chance to analyze and all it’s complexity is a good thing,” Sessions told reporters on Tuesday. “I think one of the big messages of the last election was that ‘you guys work for us. We want to see your bills. We want to hear the debate’…I say let’s have it out.”

Perhaps Senator Conrad should, once again, revisit his own words from a speech he gave at a “Moment of Truth” press conference to announce the re-launching of the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan: “History is going to judge whether we have the courage, character, and the vision to stand up for America’s future. Those who take a walk, those who turn away, those who don’t have the gumption to stand up, are going to be judged very, very harshly.”

At the very least, he could explain what exactly is so courageous about keeping his budget plan hidden from the very people he has sworn to serve (if only for a little while longer).

UPDATE: It looks like the mark-up hearing has been delayed indefinitely. From The Hill:

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad will not be conducting a markup of a Senate budget resolution on Monday and no date has been set for one to occur.

“While Chairman Conrad was hoping a mark up could take place as early as the beginning of next week, his discussions with colleagues are continuing,” committee spokesman Stu Nagurka said Friday.

He said that the Congressional Budget Office has shared new estimates with the commitee that “need to be examined before the committee moves forward.”