The U.S. Budget Battle is Back

I’ve been covering the U.S. Budget for over a decade. It’s tough to make sense of the figures. The way they’re presented and tainted by fights from each side make it hard to know what’s real. Last week I went to a fiscal summit to hear experts talk about the current round now before Congress. I must admit, I walked away more excited about America’s future than I’ve been for a long time. You’re probably wondering why. The budget is still a mess. We still have an $18 trillion dollar deficit. And we’re spending about a trillion dollars a year on interest alone. And yes, President Obama is consistent with his threats to veto anything that smells of the GOP.

At the Fiscal Summit sponsored by Peter G. Peterson Foundation, I learned about some new things that make the 114th Congress different. Good things that show a glimmer of hope peeking through a dark cloud.

The Obstructionist Has Been Subdued

Few people knew that until the new session it was actually Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) who was the causing the gridlock in Congress. There are a couple of reasons why. First the Democratic-leaning media did a great job at painting the Republicans as unreasonable “bad guys.” In reality, the GOP didn’t even get the chance. Reid wouldn’t bring Bills up for a vote if he knew the Republicans would win. Most of the Bills presented were Democrat or Bipartisan.

The Democrats lost the House in 2010. The House then kept passing Bills. But it didn’t mean much because they couldn’t get it through the Senate. But Republicans did have control of enough votes to keep the Democrats from getting cloture. The GOP would filibuster so the Dems couldn’t stop the debates to vote on the Bills.

Reid changed the rules so it required less votes to win. According to ABC News, on November 21, 2013, Reid changed the required votes from 60 to 51. Democrats were then able to push through many Bills with little or no Republican votes.

Now with Republicans once again in control of both Chambers, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he wants to get things done. He believes more debates make Members better able to hear what each have to say and find common ground.

But there’s another change that needed to happen for things to move ahead. It’s looking very hopeful.

The Bully has lost his Rah-Rah Team

The first few weeks after the election, President Obama still bullied Republicans. It didn’t sink in to him that he lost. Or he thought if he ignored it somehow it would go away. Obama wasn’t expecting his party to start to look out for their own future instead of his interests.

At the summit Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that Obama has vetoed as many Bills since the start of the 114thCongress as he did in the entire rest of his term.

But many Democrats blame Obama for their losses in the elections. They realized that they were being used as his lackeys. His face was their face in voter’s minds. Now they’re not only distancing themselves from him, they are opposing him on some topics. One of Obama’s big supporters secretly made a deal because she knew he wouldn’t approve and try to stop her.

A Disappointment with a Positive Benefit

As conservatives, many of us were furious when John Boehner secretly made a deal with Nancy Pelosi. It was hard to believe. It was an unlikely duo. So, it was quite a shock. Pelosi drew fire from her party and the President. Conservatives vowed to push harder to get Boehner out next time. “Flip-flop Boehner” they call him. What he did to conservatives was wrong. He treated them like they were enemies instead of as a member of his party. Republican Members, especially in the House should have should have been told. But sometimes good things come out of bad actions.

There was something intriguing brought up at the summit. Several Members of Congress said that Boehner and Pelosi gave them a model to build on in communicating with each other. It had nothing to do with whether they agreed with what the two of them did. But they said they’d learned from the experience. The way the members were talking at the summit felt like something you would hear from the 50’s. It sparks memories of the days when Members of Congress were polite and gentile. A time when Congress found ways to work together even when fighting for their position on a topic. It’s inspiring to see such a revival.

Conservative Senator Paul Ryan (R-WI) is successfully reaching across the table. And McCarthy is now negotiating the Asian Pacific Trade Deal with Democrats. And it’s growing.

Some are using the momentum to get a more positive face in the press.

Representative Tom Price (R-GA) is applying the concept in a different way. Head of the House Budget Committee, he’s answering media questions about the President’s attack on his budget by saying he would be happy to work with him to get things done. “But the President is not willing yet,” Price says. He concludes positively by saying he hopes the President changes his mind.

This paradigm shift makes the Democrats, particularly the President, take responsibility for his stalling and gridlock actions.

The fact that things are moving in Congress now is great for the country and great for Republicans. The sting of Boehner aside, the breakthrough in Congress for the parties to be able to pass laws the Americans want is an invaluable benefit for everyone. But especially for Republicans. It’s happening on their watch. And it’s happening just before the 2016 Presidential election.

A Good Foundation for a Tough Road Ahead

Another benefit is that the parties agree on what needs to be done. As usual, they don’t agree on how it should be done. What’s different about this Congress is that they have stopped trying to make grandiose deals. Instead they look at each problem and try to find places where they have common interest. Yes, it’s a slower pace. But they’re getting things done. It’s also nurturing a positive and successful setting. This is good because there’s a lot of hard work ahead on big topics.

The Way the U.S. Budget is Structured Leaves Little Options

There’s no question that the U.S. needs to fix its infrastructure. Many East Coast rails and plumbing were built in the 1800’s. They’re replaced on an as needed basis that has risked lives in whole communities. It will keep doing so until it’s fixed. In New York, the Grand Central Station collapsed. In Baltimore, city streets were collapsing during rush hour. Broken pipes causing huge sink holes where cars fell into them. Most recently, an Amtrak accident in Pennsylvania killing and injuring many was caused because the rails weren’t modernized. There’s similar problems all over the country.

But this isn’t a Republican-caused issue. It’s a money issue. Between Entitlements and defense spending, there’s little room for anything else. There were several recommendations on how to fix the problem.

Governor Michael Bloomberg kicked off the fiscal summit. He shared his concerns about fixing our highways and bridges.

Bloomberg believes that the best way to address the problem is through a gas rate tax. He voiced his frustration that Congress nor the Administration would consider it.

Since 1993, it has been 18.4 cents a gallon, the longest we’ve ever gone without an increase. It’s about 11 cents now. Cars are more efficient and driving has leveled off. So we’re bringing in less in real dollars. Roads, bridges and transit networks have gotten 22 years older.

The Governor expressed frustration that it’s not being addressed by Congress, but noted some states are starting to take action.

In Utah, the Republican legislature and Republican Governor just adopted a law to raise the gas tax prices 5 cents a gallon and ties future increases to prices at the pump. In Michigan, the Republican governor, Rick Scott, tried to pass gas tax prices but couldn’t get it past the legislators. He took it to the people but still couldn’t get it passed. He is respected for being honest with the voters about the problem. Bloomberg noted that voters hold states, not Congress responsible for the condition of the roads and bridges.

He encourages voters to contact Congress and state legislators when they have problems with potholes. The Governor says that Congress cares about votes and want to hear from voters about their concerns.

Bloomberg believes that it is the Federal Government that needs to shoulder the burden of infrastructure, including roads. I don’t necessarily agree. It has the smell of Big Government. But it could be useful on some interstate commerce issues.

He talked about the Highway Trust Fund and how Congress is struggling to fund it. They’re extending it out for months, not years.

Is it Too Little Too Late?

Some argue that the laws getting through are too small for what we need. Entitlements are out of control. Healthcare is a mess. And people are getting hurt from infrastructure. After sitting around for seven years with nothing happening, it looks like it’s finally moving forward. Let’s hope that this little sliver of hope builds into a mountain of success!

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