The Conrad Fiasco

Imagine if Paul Ryan had produced his budget proposal and put it before his committee, but then John Boehner killed it, insisting that the House should not pass a budget of any kind so that his members could be spared a difficult vote in an election year. Surely had any such thing happened it would have been treated as a monumental leadership crisis among House Republicans and a sign of gross dereliction and disorder.

 

Well that is exactly what has happened among Senate Democrats this week. Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad proposed a version of the Bowles-Simpson plan as a draft Democratic budget and said he would bring it up for markup and eventually a vote in his committee—which would be the first time the Senate Democrats have actually bothered to propose a budget in nearly three years. But then Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid stepped in and killed the idea, insisting that no budget was necessary and forcing Conrad into a bizarre farce in yesterday’s committee markup—which involved no votes, and consisted largely of pleading by the chairman directed implicitly against his own leader.

 

And yet, the story has mostly been treated in the political press as a failure of bipartisanship. Politico described it all as “a study in gridlock” and “a metaphor” for a “broken and politically polarized Congress.” Describing the pressure Conrad was under, The Hill deadpans that “Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who consulted with Conrad in recent days, said that he understood Conrad’s attempt to take the temperature of his committee but said the Senate is not ready to come together on a bipartisan plan yet.” One gets the sense that “consulted” has a different meaning in Chicago than in the rest of the English speaking world.  

 

But as a study in gridlock, this week’s events should lead to a particular conclusion about the sources of that gridlock: House Republicans have proposed and passed a budget, the chairman of the Senate budget committee sought to propose one of his own, but the Senate’s Democratic leadership preferred inaction instead. That is in fact how essentially all of the “gridlock” of the 112th congress has happened, and it is not properly described as gridlock but as Democratic dereliction. Republicans have put their views and proposals on the table, and Democrats have been afraid to do the same and so have offered nothing but vitriol.

 

The Bowles-Simpson approach to deficit reduction is not best understood as a bipartisan middle ground: It would involve major tax increases but no reform at all of our health-care entitlements (which are by far the foremost drivers of our debt problem). That makes it a plausible opening offer from the Democrats in budget negotiations, not a plausible ultimate outcome of such negotiations. But the Democrats have been unwilling even to make such an opening offer. They prefer instead to offer nothing but demagogic scare tactics and then complain about an absence of bipartisanship.

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