It seems like the usual exercise in futility: Democrats introduce a federal budget that Republicans hate. Republicans introduce a budget Democrats hate. Pundits pronounce compromise impossible and insist neither plan has a remote chance of becoming law.
Okay, fine. We all know the predictable budget theatrics in Washington are tiresome and maybe even pointless. But the recent budget blueprints produced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., actually have a few broad similarities. In fact, the commonalities between the two plans reveal an important shift in the way both parties believe the federal bureaucracy must change. For instance:
Both budgets emphasize the need to cut spending. Ryan's budget would cut nearly $4 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, a huge sum that would require a vast reworking of the federal bureaucracy. The majority of those cuts would come from health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and from food stamps. Ryan would also cap defense spending at lower levels than he has advocated in the past—a tacit acknowledgement that all spending must be questioned, not just those Republicans may be ideologically opposed to.
Murray's plan would also cut spending, just by less. Her budget calls for nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts during the next decade, split among healthcare programs, defense and other domestic programs. While the extent of those cuts obviously isn't as severe as in Ryan's plan, it's a big shift from the proposals for more spending that were typical of Democratic budgets just a few years ago. It's becoming accepted fact in D.C. that the government has a spending problem (even if President Barack Obama denies it).
Both budgets protect Social Security. This is one program that can be maintained with a few minor changes, without the need for wrenching reforms or new taxes. It would be helpful for everybody if there were a broader understanding that Medicare and Medicaid are the real budget problems, because of rising healthcare costs and baby boomers' swelling enrollment. Social Security is on much more solid footing.
Both favor some kind of tax reform. Ryan favors a complete overhaul of the tax code, while Murray's budget calls for more targeted changes, mostly tax hikes on the wealthy. But some Democrats agree with Ryan on the basic need for tax reform. This will be a huge fight if it ever happens, but even so, both sides generally favor closing loopholes for high earners and corporations, lowering corporate tax rates, and putting some kind of limit on the total amount of deductions taxpayers can claim. At a minimum, that's a starting point for negotiation.
Both parties want to rescind the sequester. Murray's budget would replace the $1 trillion or so in across-the-board spending due to go into effect during the next decade with more targeted, and presumably logical, cuts. Ryan and other Republicans favor the same general idea. The two sides differ over what should be cut and spared (as usual) but at least there's widespread recognition that cutting all federal spending more or less equally is a foolish way to impose fiscal discipline. Better to prioritize in some way, even if it's ad hoc.
Still, the differences in the Democratic and Republican budgets are huge and hard to bridge. Murray's budget, for example, calls for nearly $1 trillion in additional tax increases, which Republicans have said they won't consider. And Democrats are sure to accuse Republicans of trying to gut safety-net programs Dems have long sworn to protect. So expect the warfare in Washington to continue, with little or no recognition of the common ground the two parties each have a couple of toes on.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.