Fantasy budgeting

U.S. Congress in session.
U.S. Congress in session. AP

To judge from the headlines, Congress managed to accomplish the nearly impossible this week by approving a budget, the first joint budget resolution lawmakers have passed since 2009. But wait — hold the applause and confetti.

The proposal approved by the Senate 51-48 on Tuesday and previously passed by the House has been touted by Republicans controlling Capitol Hill as a landmark achievement. But that is only true if you believe in fairy tales.

The document is little more than a political wish list, an ideological marker with little practical significance except as a way of measuring the priorities of the Republicans controlling the legislative branch of the government.

The proudest boast of GOP lawmakers is that their budget will eliminate red ink over the next decade. Actually, it will do no such thing because it is non-binding, which means it has no impact on real spending. But the hypothetical blueprint would cut $5.3 trillion in spending over 10 years, mostly by reducing spending on programs to help the poor.

There are several reasons why that won’t happen.

The first has to do with political reality: Any such actions would be greeted by a veto at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Also, we doubt legislators would actually fight to produce draconian cuts in benefit programs just as a presidential election is in the offing.

Take, for example, the Republican prescription for healthcare: To achieve the prescribed cuts, they would have to draft and pass legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, turn Medicaid into block grants to the states and begin converting Medicare into a significantly different program that offers eligible seniors assistance to buy private health insurance.

The impact on the public would be significant, and harmful, given that the overall reduction in spending includes $4.2 trillion in cuts to benefit programs like Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps over 10 years.

Given the far-fetched nature of this proposal and the stringent reductions in the budget measure, even key members of the Republican caucus who voted for it are skeptical. “With the numbers we’re having to appropriate to, I’m not sure we can pass these bills,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Finally, there is the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of it all: Making the deficit disappear assumes that the austerity budget would produce faster economic growth, which would increase tax revenues and thus help balance the books.

Europe’s experience following the economic collapse of 2008-2009, however, is that austerity has precisely the opposite effect: It acts as a brake on growth.

President Obama’s own “aspirational” budget, released in February, is not likely to go anywhere, either, because, among other things, it calls for nearly $1 trillion in tax increases on the wealthy. But his objectives are more in line with the nation’s real needs.

He would boost the middle class by increasing aid to education, childcare, job training and other people-oriented necessities. His budget would also expand investment in infrastructure.

Somewhere between the president’s budget and the GOP’s budget, there’s a good plan to cut spending and help the American people improve their lives. If we had leaders who would talk to each other and were willing to sit down and negotiate, we might actually get that budget.

Don’t hold your breath.