Congress

‘No values?’ Democrats unlikely to advance a full budget, already facing GOP attacks

McCarthy riles Pelosi over oft-repeated remark that budgets are a ‘statement of values’

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., says it’s unlikely Democrats will advance a full budget resolution this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats are unlikely to advance a full budget resolution this year, opening the new majority to the same attacks it previously launched at Republicans for failing to get their budget resolutions to the floor.

But Democrats are expected to go a step further and not even mark up a budget resolution in committee this year. Republicans were quick to pounce, even though a final decision has not yet been made.

“Let’s remember what Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi said,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday, quoting his fellow Californian’s oft repeated refrain: “Show me your budget, show me your values.”

“They have no budget. Does that mean they have no values?” McCarthy said.

Watch: Why presidential budget requests are usually dead on arrival, explained

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth told reporters Thursday he has a fiscal 2020 budget resolution drafted, but he admitted it’s “unlikely” his panel will release it or mark it up.

The primary concern is there wouldn’t be enough votes in the Democratic Caucus to advance it on the floor, and Yarmuth said he doesn’t want to proceed to markup if the budget won’t be brought to the floor.

“We have moderate members who don’t want to vote for revenue increases and on the other side, on the progressive side, there are people who don’t want to vote for a large defense number; they want more spending in nondefense,” the Kentucky Democrat said. “So finding the numbers is not easy.”

 

Divided on details

The topline numbers for defense and nondefense spending are the key component of a budget resolution, which also includes a ton of nonbinding language outlining the party’s priorities on spending and tax policies. 

As McCarthy noted, Pelosi often calls budgets “a statement of values.” But Democrats are clearly divided on some of the details behind their core values of providing economic certainty for low- and middle-income families, expanding health care access, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and combating climate change.

Progressives want to make significant government spending investments on proposals such as  ‘Medicare for All’ and the Green New Deal, with little regard to offsetting the high cost of those proposals, saying they would save the government money in the long run.

Centrist Democrats want to make more moderate investments and generally support a pay-as-you-go approach to offsetting new spending. However, many centrists, especially those who have to defend seats in Republican-leaning districts, are also wary of offsets that could be interpreted as tax increases.

Balancing those competing visions in a budget resolution is not an easy feat, so it’s no wonder Yarmuth is leaning against that option.

The budget resolution he’s drafted is similar to previous Democratic budgets in that it calls for roughly $2 trillion in revenue over 10 years. Although the measure doesn’t specify where that revenue would come from, “it’s obvious some of it would be from tax increases,” he said.

In 2017, then ranking member Yarmuth brought a Democratic budget resolution to the floor with the same revenue figure, and 32 Democrats, all but two of whom are still serving in the House, voted against it. Those 30 Democrats would be more than enough to prevent the House from passing a similar budget this year, and that’s not counting the moderate freshmen who would also likely be inclined to oppose it.

Yarmuth has not made a final decision on a budget resolution, but he has indicated a preference for advancing legislation that would simply establish the topline spending numbers. He has such a proposal drafted that would raise the statutory budget caps put in place by sequestration for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, with larger increases in those years for nondefense spending than for defense. 

If Democrats decide to proceed with that caps proposal, Yarmuth said it would serve as an opening bid in negotiations with the Senate, which are slowly getting underway. President Donald Trump and his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney oppose any increase in the budget caps, so it’s unclear any deal Congress reaches could get signed into law.

Need to act

Time is of the essence, since appropriators need to begin drafting and advancing their fiscal 2020 bills. There are 12 individual appropriations bills, but Democrats are expected to bring them to the floor in packages known as “minibuses.”

Yarmuth said his goal is to decide by Monday whether to proceed with a budget resolution or with caps legislation, so he can announce a committee markup for next week with floor action expected the following week. The decision will come down to which measure can get 218 votes on the floor.

“We’re trying to get something done one way or the other before the recess, so we don’t have much time to figure it out,” he said. The House is scheduled to break for a two-week Easter recess on April 10.

Budget ranking member Steve Womack told Roll Call on Wednesday he understands where Yarmuth is coming from “because budget resolutions in the 21st century are extremely difficult with divided government and political divisions as they are and cable news and social media and then the hard truth about needing to address issues of deficit and debt.”

But the Arkansas Republican wasn’t shy about criticizing Democrats for forgoing a budget — “at least my committee marked up a budget in ’18,” he said — and seemingly deciding to “pull numbers from the air on defense and nondefense” spending. 

“It’s very sobering that a party that complained to us that we didn’t get a budget resolution on the floor last year … can’t even produce their own in committee,” Womack said.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday she’s fine with whatever path Yarmuth chooses so long as there is some action taken to set the topline spending numbers. 

“My preference is that he should proceed, and I trust his judgement,” she said.

‘Our values are right on target’

Just minutes before McCarthy attacked Democrats for their apparent lack of a budget resolution, Roll Call had asked Pelosi about her belief that “budgets are a statement of values” and what  said about the Democrats if they didn’t do one this year.

“It says our values are right on target,” the speaker said. “And let’s look at the president’s budget that takes $2 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid, hundreds of billions of dollars from food stamps, tens of billions of dollars from disability benefits under Social Security, money from children under the Special Olympics. It’s a disgrace … and something that they should be very, very ashamed of.”

Yarmuth also dismissed the notion that Democrats not doing a budget would suggest they can’t come to a consensus on their party values.

“No, because I think you would ultimately see that through the appropriations process,” he said.

Several rank-and-file Democrats agreed that passing appropriations bills is the more crucial part of the budget process and said they’d be fine if their party focused on the topline spending numbers rather than a traditional budget resolution so they can get on to that.

“The main thing people are looking for is a caps deal so the appropriators can do their jobs,” said Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, who chairs the centrist New Democrat Coalition. “I served on the select committee on budget and appropriations process reform. I think frankly one of my main takeaways is that a budget resolution has really become more of a political messaging document than it has been something that actually governs the [gives] and the takes within the budget process.”

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, an appropriator who used to serve on the Budget Committee, said he is one of the members who wonders why Congress still bothers doing budget resolutions.

“To me it’s a big old pile of tapioca pudding,” the Wisconsin Democrat said. “It doesn’t really mean very much. The important part is that we have good strong appropriations bills that make it to the floor and represent our values there.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.