Irresponsible Amendments Added... But It's Still Better Than the President's Budget
The Senate voted 52-47 on Friday to pass a budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 21) requiring any extension of the Bush tax cuts to be paid for. The vote marked a victory for Democrats, who seek to avoid the embarrassments of the Republican-controlled Congress that failed to pass a budget last year. However, several amendments were added to the budget resolution on the floor that, if they survive the conference committee and remain in the final version passed by the House and Senate, will make it more difficult for Congress to end budget deficits. Nonetheless, the Senate budget still can be viewed as far more responsible than the budget plan proposed by President Bush. The main reason for this is that the Senate plan maintains the pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, rules that require any new entitlement spending or any new tax cuts - including any extension of the Bush tax cuts which expire at the end of 2010 - to be offset with spending cuts or revenue increases elsewhere in the budget.
Spending the Social Security Surplus
Both the President's plan and the Senate plan rely on some flawed assumptions in order to appear to balance the budget within five years. The President's budget proposal was far more irresponsible, since it assumed the Bush tax cuts would all be made permanent and huge cuts would be made in public services. One problem with both plans is that they would continue the practice of borrowing the Social Security surplus (the Social Security taxes collected in excess of the Social Security benefits paid out in a given year). This money is supposed to be used to pay down the national debt to free up money in the future so that we can more easily pay the benefits of the baby boomers when they retire. (This is the idea behind the Social Security Trust Fund.) The Senate budget plan as originally presented by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad was supposed to produce a "surplus" of $132 billion in 2012, but if you don't count the Social Security surplus that year, the budget would not quite be balanced.
Amendments Make Matters Worse
But even this illusion of responsible budgeting was more than the Senate could handle this week. An amendment offered by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) was adopted 97-1 to spend this imaginary "surplus" on extending certain parts of the Bush tax cuts. If this provision remains in the final version approved by the House and Senate, it would not change the fact that any such proposal to extend the tax cuts without offsetting the costs would still violate PAYGO and thus require 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a point of order. But with the support of 97 Senators, it could signal that the Senate's commitment to PAYGO is shaky.
The Senate also voted 63-35 to adopt an amendment offered by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) which would require a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate to increase tax rates. This provision could prove problematic if, for example, Congress wants to pay for reform of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) by rolling back some part of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers.
Worst Case Scenario Avoided
Fortunately, the worst proposed amendments were turned away by the Senate. For example, an amendment to exempt extensions of the Bush tax cuts from PAYGO rules was defeated. The Senate also rejected amendments to further cut the estate tax and repeal the AMT without paying for it.
The House of Representatives will likely vote on their budget resolution next week, and a conference will likely take place after the Congressional recess to work out differences between the Senate version and the House version.