Milbank: Now in charge, Republicans find governing difficult

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Six men in green ties took the stage in the House television studio Tuesday, and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, a slight leprechaun of a man with silver hair and dark eyebrows, approached the microphone.

“Good mor — top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” Price announced. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.”

It was altogether fitting that Republicans rolled out their budget during a festival of inebriation in honor of the man who magically (and apocryphally) banished snakes from Ireland. What Republicans have done with their budget is no less fantastic: They have employed lucky charms and mystical pots of gold to make them appear more sober about balancing the budget than they actually are.

“We do not rely on gimmicks or creative accounting tricks to balance our budget,” the House Republicans say in the introduction to their fiscal 2016 budget. True, the budget does not rely on gimmicks. The budget is a gimmick.

It pretends to keep strict limits on defense spending — “sequestration” — but then pumps tens of billions of dollars into a slush fund called “Overseas Contingency Operations.” That means the funds count as emergency spending and not as part of the Pentagon budget.

It assumes that current tax cuts will be allowed to expire as scheduled — which would amount to a $900 billion tax increase that nobody believes would be allowed to go into effect.

It proposes to repeal Obamacare but then counts revenues and savings from Obamacare as if the law remained in effect.

It claims to save $5.5 trillion over 10 years, but in the fine print — the budget plan’s instructions to committees — it asks them to identify only about $5 billion in savings over that time.

It assumes more than $1 trillion in cuts to a category known as “other mandatory” programs — but doesn’t specify what those cuts would be.

It relies on $147 billion in additional revenue from “dynamic scoring,” a more generous accounting method.

It doesn’t account for the $200 billion plan now being negotiated to increase doctor payments under Medicare and to extend a children’s health care program.

It was the latest instance of the Republicans discovering how difficult it is to govern now that they have control of Congress. In the past four years, budget debuts were academic exercises because there would never be agreement between the Republican House and Democratic Senate. But now the budget might actually mean something, and the firebrands elected in the past three elections need to show how they would handle the country’s finances. It turns out they govern much like those who came before them — with legislative smoke and mirrors.

Budgetary tricks

Price, a Georgia Republican who ran the conservative Republican Study Committee, delivered a long statement, imparting his assurance that “we believe in America.” At least three times, he held up the 43-page budget for the cameras. But after the 10-minute preamble, the questioning quickly got tricky for Price.

Why didn’t he ask committees to come up with more than $5 billion in savings? “That’s a floor, not a ceiling,” Price said, adding something about “an opportunity to provide a positive solution that the American people desire.”

Andy Taylor of the Associated Press asked him about the $900 billion tax increase and the Obamacare revenues assumed in the budget. “Because we believe in the American people, and we believe in growth,” replied Price, predicting that economic growth would boost tax revenues.

Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times asked Price if he would detail the $1 trillion in mandatory cuts that the budget doesn’t identify. “Take a peek at ‘A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America,’ ” Price replied, holding up the budget again for the cameras. “I’m looking at it,” Weisman said. “It doesn’t specify.”

It didn’t — and that’s the sort of trick Republicans can no longer get away with now that they’re in charge.