Paul Ryan failed to pass a Republican budget resolution—but that’s good news

It’s now widely accepted among Washington commentators that the Republican House of Representatives dropped the ball on the federal budget over the past week. You might think this means people have finally noticed just how bad the Republican House Budget Resolution that passed out of committee recently was. But, no.

Instead, the tsk tsking is about the Republicans officially missing the statutory deadline to pass a budget resolution. Now, this is a puzzling failure, to be clear. Republicans have majorities in both the House and the Senate, and Speaker Paul Ryan promised to restore “regular order” on budgets during his tenure.

And Republicans had fun in recent years characterizing Democrats as not doing their jobs because they could not pass annual budgets through regular order (the irony, of course, being that these budgets were held up by Republicans boisterously opposing any compromise). Mitch McConnell did some of the best mocking, “I don’t think the law says, ‘Pass a budget unless it’s hard,’ so I think there’s no question that we would take up our responsibility. We would be passing a budget. Every year.”

What doomed the Republicans’ budget this year was again a failure to compromise—but this time they couldn’t even reach a compromise among themselves. But while it’s always fun to see politicians flailing, it is striking how much more grief the GOP leadership has gotten from a procedural failure compared to what they got from passing a budget out of committee that would have wrecked the recovery and made the lives of millions of the most vulnerable Americans substantially worse. Rather than focusing on whether a proposed budget would help or harm American workers, the entire discussion centers on whether the Republicans can pass a budget resolution, filled with many things that don’t have a chance at becoming law, by a deadline that doesn’t actually matter. The ridiculousness of the whole exercise is highlighted by the fact that the overall numbers on spending for this year were already agreed to last year, and indeed, appropriations have already gone forth with these numbers. This entire kabuki show has been really little more than Paul Ryan trying to once again impress his favored constituencies—Washington media—with what a serious-minded budget wonk he is. His act has worked before. He’s routinely described as the GOP’s deep thinker on budget and spending issues, even when he’s not in any way a serious analyst.

And in the meantime, damaging Congressional budget gaming will continue. With topline numbers already agreed to, it is likely that Republicans in the House will now try to add unrelated and ideological policy riders to the spending bills—just like last year. Last year, House Democrats and the White House were able to hold firm against blatantly ideological riders getting included in the budget. This was the right course then and continues to be the right course this year.

It would be nice if congressional budget arguments focused on how a given budget resolution would affect real people and the economy. The most pressing issues relevant to fiscal policymakers today are an economy still running below potential, weakened productivity growth, and the steady march of income inequality. All of these problems have been amplified by the fiscal austerity measures which have been in place since the Republicans hijacked the debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011 to demand steep spending cuts. The House GOP budget resolution that passed out of committee would double down on such severe cuts, and yet it couldn’t even get a majority in a Republican-controlled House because it doesn’t call for large enough cuts. Or, to put it just as accurately, it failed because too many in the Republican caucus decided that it wouldn’t do quite enough damage to the economy. That’s the real story here.