WASHINGTON -- Some time after Congress comes back to work this week, the Democrats will have a chance to address the questions of taxes, spending and fiscal policy. The budget resolution reported out of committee by a party-line vote will probably not come to the Senate floor until the energy bill is finished. But when it does, the Democrats can have their say.
If, that is, they have anything to offer. When the House was debating its budget resolution a few weeks ago, the Democrats proposed no alternative of their own. The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, confessed that he had found that "we would have to use the gimmicks and the devices the other (Republican) side used," if the goal was to make the numbers politically palatable. Rather than fake it, the House Democrats punted.
But the budget resolution, though lacking the force of law, is designed to be the clearest statement of a party's policy priorities. As long as they are silent, the Democrats cannot be part of serious political debate.
They have been muzzled because they are caught in a three-way bind. They don't want to challenge President Bush on military spending or homeland security, knowing he has broad public support for the war on terrorism. Most of them don't want to revisit the 10-year, across-the-board tax cut passed last year, in part because Bush has said he would veto any rollback and in part because they fear being labeled tax-raisers. And with the budget veering into deficit, they feel constrained about urging additional spending, even for their traditional favorite domestic programs.
The result is that the public views the Democrats, according to poll after poll, as being incoherent on economic policy. Their vagueness is leaving this vital policy field to Bush and the Republicans.
Chances are, the Senate debate will not change that. Although the budget resolution fashioned by North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has more similarities to Bush's own plan than differences, Republicans voted solidly against it. And enough Democrats criticized it--from both the left and right--to make its prospects on the Senate floor look questionable.
If the Democrats want to reclaim their voice on the economy, they could do worse than to spend a couple of hours reading the just-published issue of Blueprint, the magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council and its Progressive Policy Institute. There, several of the leading lights of the Clinton administration make the argument that Bush essentially reversed Clinton's policy of fiscal restraint by pushing through his tax cut on the basis of projected budget surpluses, which now have largely disappeared.
Gene Sperling, the head of the Clinton White House National Economic Council, writes that "the high costs of President Bush's (2001) decision to put an expansive tax cut first and savings for debt reduction and Social Security last become more evident with every passing day." Those consequences, Sperling and other authors say, include a likely decade of deficits, higher long-term interest rates, less investment and slower growth.
By contrast, California Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, says in a memo sent last week to his Republican colleagues that the GOP tax bill "will create a stronger rebound this year and faster growth in the years to come."
Those views cannot be reconciled and--for the sake of the country's economic understanding--should not be blurred, either by the silence House Democrats chose or the lukewarm endorsement of Bush's economics implied by Conrad's budget resolution.
In 1993, every single congressional Republican voted against Clinton's first budget, arguing that the increase in top-bracket tax rates it included would throw the country into a recession. They were wrong; the economy boomed. But at least they voted the courage of their convictions.
Last year, most Democrats opposed the Bush tax cut, and even more of them now believe that the remaining promised breaks -- almost all for upper-income people -- should be frozen.
Sen. Ted Kennedy months ago proposed doing just that, to help finance the military and security buildup and to pay for such things as a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Sperling, as befits a New Democrat, makes a more modest proposal: Freeze the top two rates, affecting only families with incomes over $190,000, and reduce the estate tax rather than abolish it.
But congressional Democrats are afraid to go even that far. What's the use of a party that won't give voters a real alternative on something as basic as the budget?
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