Midsummer Madness

Baseball fans know that July marks the mid-point of the major league season—a time to take stock of what’s gone on before (Go Sox!) and what’s ahead (sorry Brewers). It’s also the time when fans cast their ballots for the All-Star game, where the top performers in the first half of the season get to showcase their talents.

If we were to follow the same tradition in our Nation’s capital, I’m not sure we could reach a consensus on who in government deserves the vaunted title of “all-star,” but it may be worth reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re heading.

The year began amidst an atmosphere of high-drama and brinksmanship surrounding the fiscal cliff crisis. But never fear—our national leaders managed to avoid catastrophe by changing a few top tax rates and, well, not much else.

The month of March came in like a lion as fears built about the looming sequestration. True to form, it ended like a lamb with policymakers doing nothing to stop it—so discretionary programs once again took the brunt of meat-axe spending cuts. (Does anyone really believe that cuts to programs that account for less than 30 percent of the federal budget will get us out of debt?)

But wait, it gets better—if by better, you mean worse.

The House and Senate each adopted spending plans that couldn’t have been further apart—like $91 billion apart. At $967 billion, the House plan called for further deep cuts to discretionary programs, but drew a bright line when it came to tax revenues. The House plan’s cuts are heavily weighted to non-defense discretionary accounts. It protects defense from sequester cuts by holding military spending at the pre-sequester level of $552 billion and lowering the non-defense cap to $414 billion.

In contrast, the Senate top-line is set at $1.058 billion, the spending cap Congress agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The Senate plan would cut spending by $975 billion over 10 years, raise the same amount in new taxes for corporations and top earners, provide $100 billion for infrastructure and workforce training programs and reduce the deficit by $1.85 billion.

Finding a middle ground between the two spending plans seems an insurmountable task. But what House lawmakers may find equally challenging is the job of fitting 12 appropriations bills under their spending ceilings.

If the House sticks to its plan, public health, education and employment training programs would have to be cut a total of $28 billion below current spending—four times worse than sequestration itself. As one lawmaker put it, it’s easy to vote for a top-line number, but much more difficult to decide where to cut enough to achieve that total.

Absent a “grand bargain” this fall—perhaps around the time the debt ceiling has to be raised again—the only thing we may have to look forward to is an exciting World Series.

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