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The Debt Fight

In Congress, a Budget Is Just a Plan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada

Photograph by Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada

Leaving Williamsburg, Va., last week after a three-day retreat with House Republicans, Majority Leader Eric Cantor said his caucus had a plan. They would agree to an increase in the debt limit, he said, but only for three months. If the House or the Senate fails to pass a budget in that time, the federal government would stop paying Congress’s salaries.

Seems sensible. No budget, no pay. It’s similar to a solution that former GOP Senator George Voinovich proposed to Bloomberg Businessweek a couple of weeks ago. And behold, two days later, on Meet the Press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answered that the Senate would, in fact, “do a budget” this year, after four years without one. So great. The White House produces a long, detailed budget every year, so now everyone’s budgeting.

All this means, however, is that Reid plans to adopt the same understanding of the word “budget” that the House and the White House have held for years. Cantor didn’t say “the House and the Senate,” as in “come to an agreement, get it through conference and hand it to the president.” He said “the House or the Senate,” which means that neither chamber need actually concede anything. Rather, they both just need to pass something on their own. A “budget,” as both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue now agree, is not in fact a budget. It’s just a plan.

Two years in a row now, the House has passed a resolution in favor of Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity. The Path does not, and can’t ever, actually produce a law. It’s a campaign document, designed to put House Republicans on record as in favor of a certain kind of approach to fiscal policy. Two years in a row now, Barack Obama’s Budget of the U.S. Government has done the same thing. It, too, could not gather enough Republican votes to become law, and was never supposed to. It, too, served as a campaign tool. Like Ryan’s Path, Obama’s Budget is just a plan, a set of hypothetical plans best read in the subjunctive voice, prefaced by the words “If I were king, I would …”

None of these pieces of paper actually means or solves anything. A budget, as opposed to a “budget,” is something that both houses of Congress and the president have all agreed on. It has passed the lawmaking process laid out in the Constitution, which means that everyone has given something and everyone’s plans have turned into a law, an actual budget to guide appropriations committees in their work.

So when Eric Cantor says the Senate has to pass a budget, it doesn’t mean anything. When Harry Reid says the Senate will pass a budget, it doesn’t mean anything. When the website of the White House Office of Management and Budget displays a budget, it doesn’t mean anything. These acts, of “passing” a “budget” or “writing” a “budget” are just straws in the wind. There is no shortage of “If I were king” plans in Washington, and one more every year does not solve any problems. An actual budget is something that can gather enough votes to become a law, something that gets a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden.

If anyone’s going to withhold pay, it should be withheld until that happens. No signing ceremony, no pay. Nobody gets any credit for another plan.

Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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