May 5, 2009 | Commentary on Energy and Environment, Budget and Spending

Don't Avoid Budget Discussion Like the Swine Flu

Talking about the federal budget causes dizziness, headaches and confusion. That's why many Americans mistake it for the swine flu and try to avoid it.

Likewise, the just-adopted budget can also be dangerous. One threat has been dodged, though. The threat that the budget would give favored treatment to new energy taxes has dissolved, although plans for those taxes are still being pushed actively.

No Republicans supported the plan for record spending; 17 House Democrats and three Senate Democrats also voted no. Among the House Blue Dogs -- who brag about their fiscal conservatism -- 40 of the 53 voted for the record-smashing $3.6-trillion new federal budget.

The maze of budget numbers scares everyday Americans away from paying attention. The budget is chock-full of shocking numbers, including a record one-year deficit that could reach $1.7 trillion. And even if the numbers alone don't scare people away, the arcane and confusing terms and details may.

"Reconciliation" is one such term.

The otherwise arcane Congressional term essentially means "to change the rules to make some legislation easier to pass." That means requiring approval from 51 of the 100 Senators instead of the 60 votes normally needed to prevent filibusters. Reconciliation also establishes other ground rules that make it tough for minority members of Congress to block the spending bills that are considered after the budget is approved.

Perhaps a larger worry is that the new House-Senate budget grants the 51-vote advantage to a huge federal makeover/takeover of health care. The still-being-drafted legislation could expand government control of care in ways not considered since Hillary Clinton's plans crashed in 1993.

A similar no-filibuster preference is being given to enlarging the federal role in education. President Obama's plan for this is called Zero to Five. Yes, it means that rather than starting government schooling of children in kindergarten, the intent is universal "voluntary" programs that start at birth. The universal part is intended to be permanent; the voluntary part may not be. Obama and advocates claim that the remedy for indifferent and neglectful parents is more government billions and bureaucracy for all. Or, as some see it, earlier indoctrination of our children.

Fortunately, the key item missing from the reconciliation terms of the budget is the cap-and-tax energy agenda. It continues to totter under its own herculean weight. As The Heritage Foundation has described it, the Waxman-Markey bill could mean "an annual tax of nearly $2,000 on every American household" that "will destroy jobs [by the millions] and drive up energy prices for years to come."

Plans by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to pass it by Memorial Day slipped first to plans for action in his Energy and Commerce Committee by Memorial Day, and now to "eventually."

Almost all Republican House members and a significant number of Democrats have been pushing back against the bill. Democrats remember that they lost their majority in 1994 after muscling former Pres. Bill Clinton's infamous BTU tax through the House by a one-vote margin, only to see Senators refuse to bring it up. That's why many Democrats are saying that Waxman-Markey should lie dormant until a favorable Senate vote can be guaranteed. They fear backlash from the voters, with no upside to compensate.

Sleeping dogs can still be dangerous, however. Waxman and co-sponsor Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are quietly calling members to their offices to discuss how to change their bill just enough to assure passage now. Then its provisions could be tweaked in future years to reach their goal of replacing current and affordable energy with their dream of green (but hyper-expensive) energy.

An exemption here, a delayed timetable there, some favorable treatment for special interests in a key congressional district -- these are legislative tools that Waxman especially is a master at using. As a major architect of gradually expanding programs such as Medicaid to their current huge size, Waxman has noted (.pdf), "Incrementalism may not get much press, but it does work."

The bill is so onerous that even changing or omitting major provisions would still be a threat to America's economy, jobs, and way of life. One example buried deep in the bill's 648 pages: The bill authorizes unlimited lawsuits over "small incremental emissions" that create "any effect" to the air or climate "whether or not the effect or risk is widely shared."

In other words, any individual can sue any person, company, or government agency and extract a settlement with far more ease than under current environmental laws. Bruce Benson of the property and Environment Research Center says in a 2006 Wall Street Journal opinion editorial that the current, more-stringent laws already amount to "environmental bounty hunting," noting that "settlements bring in money environmental groups can use to pursue other goals." Such lawsuits have been labeled "the engine that propels the field of environmental law" as they extract huge payments and deter good development as well as bad. Waxman-Markey would give birth to enormous and costly expansion of this litigation.

Nobody is sounding a death knell for cap-and-tax, despite its failure to gain favorable reconciliation treatment and the bill's other current problems. It remains the self-proclaimed "flagship" priority of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She spent major political capital already to promote it when she engineered Waxman's elevation to his chairmanship, deposing the more cautious Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.)--who calls Waxman-Markey simply "a great big tax."

Whenever Waxman is ready to move, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the full committee, is promising "mass chaos." If we don't get chaos in committee, we'll certainly get it if the bill ever becomes law. And at epidemic level

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in Human Events