If You Like Simpson-Bowles, You Should Like the Senate Budget

The Senate Democrats’ budget is a responsible attempt to reduce deficits.

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Paul Ryan and Patty Murray

Chad Stone is chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Pundits depict the contrasting budgets of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) as mere statements of their respective parties' wish lists. But, in fact, the Murray budget—like every one of President Obama's budget proposals over the past couple of years — looks like the kind of centrist compromise those pundits profess to want.

My CBPP colleague Richard Kogan has prepared an apples-to-apples comparison of the Ryan and the Murray budgets using a common set of starting assumptions (known to budgeteers as the baseline). On this basis, Ryan proposes much more deficit reduction than Murray ($6.2 trillion versus $2.3 trillion). Leaving aside reductions in interest payments on the debt, the Ryan budget essentially relies on program cuts while the Murray budget achieves its savings equally from program cuts and revenue increases.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Question: what policy drives the huge, harsh, and politically unrealistic cuts in the Ryan budget? Answer: the misguided notion that balancing the budget within 10 years makes any sense as a goal of budget policy and the insistence, contrary to all evidence, that government spending is out of control and must be reduced substantially.

That's why the Ryan budget goes far beyond the deficit reduction recommended by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama's fiscal commission. It has a far larger discrepancy between spending cuts and revenue increases, and violates a core principle of Simpson-Bowles that deficit reduction should not increase poverty or harm the disadvantaged.

In contrast, here's CBPP's assessment of the Murray budget:

[The Murray plan's $2.3 trillion in deficit reduction] is just short of the $2.4 trillion that Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson recently proposed in their new plan. It is noticeably more than the $1.5 trillion that CBPP calculates would be sufficient to stabilize the debt at 73 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). As a result, the Murray plan puts the debt as a share of the economy on a downward trajectory, reducing it to about 70 percent of GDP by 2023.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

It's wildly misleading to characterize the Murray plan as a Democratic wish list when it's more conservative in some respects than the original Simpson-Bowles plan:

When combined with already enacted deficit reduction, the Senate plan would result in total deficit reduction of $5.0 trillion, of which 61 percent would be from program cuts. This total is somewhat less than the original Simpson-Bowles plan of December 2010 called for. But the original Simpson-Bowles plan called for noticeably more total revenue increases than would occur under the Senate plan (when combined with already enacted measures), and it was more evenly balanced between revenue increases and program cuts.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the New Bowles-Simpson Plan a Good Deficit Reduction Proposal?]

If you want to see a budget that expresses the priorities of core Democratic constituencies akin to how Ryan expresses those of core Republican constituencies, look at the Congressional Progressive Caucus's "Back to Work Budget." Though a serious and responsible proposal, it's not one likely to be adopted, even if we were in an era in which the nation's leaders were seriously interested in finding a bipartisan budget compromise.

That brings us back to the Murray budget. It's time to recognize that, in a divided but functioning political system, a budget like that would not be the opening gambit on one side; it would be the budget that emerges from serious bipartisan negotiations.