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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Numbers too spooky to record 

By Patrick McIlheran

June 26, 2010

Numbers, it seems, have become a frightful thing for the House of Representatives. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) let on last week that the House won't be doing a budget this year. It will spend money on this, that and several billion other things come fall, but it won't pass a budget resolution, the overall map that quantifies how much the government will take in and spend next year, and for some years beyond.

This sounds arcane, and Hoyer's concession - a resolution is months late, anyhow - set off the usual partisan attacks and defenses. Yawn. However, this failure is a symptom of something bigger that will rattle your life but will be good in the near future.

Hoyer, for the record, said that the House has reasons for skipping the budget. Besides, he says, it'll do something better: It'll gin up an "enforcement resolution" that, on the fly, will "require further cuts below the president's budget" and will try to offset new spending with cuts or new revenue. It's not a budget; it's more like guidelines.

And he promises a vote on whatever comes out of the president's appointed panel pondering ways out of our heretofore unimaginable deficit.

That's nice. Incidentally, the president doesn't cut his budget but would increase it by about $163 billion, following last year's 27% jump in discretionary spending. The pay-as-you-go offsets exempt vast tracts of the budget. And the wise men of the deficit commission are due to deliver their ideas in December. That's three months into the next fiscal year and, you'll notice, after Congress next faces voters.

This will be the first time in the modern budget era that the House won't put the numbers on paper. House and Senate have agreed to disagree a few times, but this year, the House isn't even going to try.

"Just spending, that's all they're doing this year," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, who is the lead Republican on budget matters and is thus shut out entirely.

"They want to spend a lot of money, but they don't want to budget for it."

Hoyer's talk of the deficit commission fits this. He correctly pointed out that deficits can be cured only if Congress reforms the majority of spending that's on autopilot, the entitlements that promise care and support to practically everyone. Congresses for decades haven't fixed these, lacking the nerve. Now, Hoyer and his Democratic majority seem to hope they'll be able to say, "It's not my fault! The deficit panel made me cut your Medicare!"

Or raise your taxes: Hoyer also said the government must, long-term, snatch still more of what Americans earn. He even hinted - this is new - that Congress may raise taxes not just on "the rich" but on those earning less than $250,000 a year, at least maybe after next year.

This could be why they're loath to put numbers on paper: The numbers are frightful. People will start noticing that even in its early stages, Obamacare will cost far more than promised. They'll see the piled-up zeros of failed stimulus. They'll see taxes that, they were told, would only land on others.

All right, the Democrats lack budgetary courage. The Republicans were scarcely better when in power. All that's new is the majority's deliberate budgetlessness.

But this isn't just politics; it has real effects.

A managing director for the mutual fund company Fidelity, Bruce Johnstone, warned in Waukesha the other day that the more the government tinkers with the economy's rules, the weaker any recovery will be. Small businesses particularly are wary of what surprises lurk. Uncertainty, Johnstone pointed out, deters growth, hiring and prosperity's return.

Johnstone was simply speaking old truths, but perhaps Congress forgot them. By failing to budget the quarter of the nation's economy that is federal spending, lawmakers are adding huge uncertainties. By fearing to quantify what government will cost, they suggest the numbers are even worse than anyone suspects.

By dodging duty, they're making the future dangerously opaque. If you want to know why the recession is dragging on far longer than most, this is one of the reasons. 

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist.