Budget politics

Having failed to pass a budget blueprint last year, the Senate and House are trying again this week on the fiscal 2006 version. Shadowed by deficits, lawmakers will vote on resolutions that will shape spending and taxation, if both houses can agree. The Senate began its debate Monday, and among the blizzard of amendments it is expected to consider are four particularly important questions.

Two procedural issues concern how easy it should be for lawmakers to approve tax cuts. One is an amendment that would restore the pay-as-you-go rule under which increases in entitlement spending or cuts in tax revenue must be paid for with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts. Last year the House passed a sham rule applying to spending increases but not to tax cuts; the Senate approved a real rule, creating a standoff with the House that ended up dooming the budget resolution. In an age of apparently endless budget deficits, it's important that the Senate reaffirm its commitment to an effective, balanced pay-as-you-go rule.

The second procedural question involves whether the Senate should be able to consider tax cuts under special protections that prevent filibusters and allow them to be passed with a bare majority. The protection procedure, known as "reconciliation," was designed to help lawmakers make tough deficit-cutting moves, putting spending cuts and tax increases on a fast track that would shield them from being filibustered. But in recent years, reconciliation has been perverted from that intended purpose and instead misused to grease the way for tax cuts. This year's Senate model would "reconcile" - that is, protect from filibuster - an additional $70 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. It's time to go back to the original purpose.

A third question concerns opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. Because drilling would bring in revenue, it's included in the reconciliation instructions - and, once again, could therefore be passed on a simple majority vote. Whatever you think of drilling in the reserve, and we are skeptical, this kind of important vote on a matter of national policy shouldn't be crammed into the budget bill and deprived of the usual procedural protections.

Finally, the most complicated and in many ways most important question of this year's budget debate involves whether and how much the budget resolution should require lawmakers to find cuts in Medicaid, the shared federal-state health care program for the poor. The Senate budget resolution contemplates $15 billion in cuts over the next five years, and the House provides for at least that amount, perhaps as much as $20 billion. While the administration called for bigger cuts over 10 years, its five-year cuts would total only $7.6 billion, half as much as the Senate and House are considering.

With the costs of Medicaid and other entitlement programs soaring, we don't think any programs should be considered untouchable, and we agree with the administration that there may be ways in which states and recipients have been gaming the Medicaid system to get extra money. But change in the program should be driven by a reasoned determination of how reforms can be achieved without hurting those in need of health care, not by plucking numbers out of thin air.


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