Articles

Obama's Incredible Shrinking Clout

March 27, 2013

Maybe Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't want a lot of attention as the United States Senate voted on a budget resolution for the first time in four years. Or maybe he's a Las Vegas night owl.

Whatever the reason, it was 5 a.m. last Saturday when the Senate approved a budget resolution for fiscal year 2014 by a razor thin 50-49 vote. Both houses of Congress have now passed resolutions setting the overall level of outlays for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, as well as subtotals for the budget's major areas.

As Mr. Reid feared, bringing up a Senate budget resolution put congressional Democrats on record as favoring new taxes and continued deficits.

Over the next decade, the Senate's Democratic budget resolution would increase taxes $1 trillion while spending a total of $47.2 trillion and never balancing the budget. The resolution calls for $837 billion of cuts over the same period. The House Republican resolution would hold the line on taxes, cut outlays $5.7 trillion while spending a total of $41.5 trillion, and balance the budget in 10 years.

The Democrats' resolution calls for spending $3.715 trillion this coming fiscal year. That is $184 billion more than the Republican resolution and $97 billion more than what the Congressional Budget Office says outlays would be with normal spending increases based on current law. No wonder four Senate Democrats rejected their party's budget blueprint, as did 35 House Democrats when the resolution was brought up for a vote in the lower house.

The parties' big differences make it virtually certain the House and Senate resolutions won't be reconciled in a conference committee. The chambers also have different rules. The House spending levels are binding for each of the 13 appropriations bills that fund the government. Since the Senate resolution didn't get 60 votes, its spending levels are not binding on the upper chamber's appropriations process.

The 2011 Budget Control Act (which produced the sequester) already capped fiscal year 2014 discretionary spending for both chambers at $966 billion. And while two-thirds of the overall federal budget consists of mandatory outlays and interest payments, much of the congressional appropriations process is devoted to distributing discretionary spending. The central partisan dispute is likely to be over the split between defense and nondefense spending.

In both chambers, there is likely to be the give-and-take that Americans routinely saw when Congress went through regular legislative order in years past to pass the budget. This would be an improvement: Since 2010, Washington has been funded through continuing resolutions, stopgap measures generally passed in a crisis that spell out how much government can spend for a few months. In fiscal year 2012 there were five continuing resolutions in 12 months. That's no way to run a small business, let alone the $3.5 trillion enterprise that's the federal government.

This year, Republicans will block any new taxes or mandatory spending. Democrats are likely to oppose any significant entitlement savings. There is little chance of a "grand bargain" of tax increases, spending restraint and entitlement reform without serious presidential leadership. In any case that would require trust, something Mr. Obama has not done much to create and a lot to destroy.

Astonishingly, little importance in all this has been attached to the president's budget. Mr. Obama was required by law to deliver one to Congress by Feb. 4. He has yet to do so. It hardly seems to matter: Congressional leaders plowed ahead anyway.

The budget drama reveals a more important phenomenon—that Mr. Obama has become a minor actor on Capitol Hill. On a growing array of issues, members of both parties have come to understand that progress is more likely with the president on the sideline.

For example, bipartisan groups of senators and congressmen are doing the difficult work of writing detailed immigration reform legislation. Mr. Reid—contrary to the president's wishes—took it upon himself to sculpt a gun control bill that doesn't include Mr. Obama's bans on so-called "assault weapons" and, perhaps, limits on the capacity of ammunition clips.

There has been no movement in Congress on the president's carbon tax. During Saturday's budget debate, 79 senators supported repeal of ObamaCare's tax on medical devices and 62 senators backed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (alas, both nonbinding votes). On issue after issue, Mr. Obama is being routinely ignored or rebuffed.

No president is ever irrelevant, but less than 10 weeks into his second term Mr. Obama's power is waning. Even members of his own party view him as an obstacle to getting things done.

A version of this article appeared March 28, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama's Incredible Shrinking Clout, and online at WSJ.com.  

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