Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - The budget deficit will be nearly $1 trillion this year, our debt is headed toward $17 trillion, Congress's approval polls are at 13 percent, and our lawmakers are on a two-week Spring Break.

A very wise observer of government once said that "No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session." If that's true, the longer our lawmakers are out of town, the better off we'll be.

When an irate Boston constituent once complained at a town hall meeting that members of Congress don't seem to work very hard, the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill joked, "It beats heavy lifting."

According to the work schedule released by House GOP leaders in January, lawmakers, who are paid $174,000 a year plus generous health and pension benefits, will be in session for a grand total of 126 days this year.

That's pretty good money for a part-time job that's often relieved by recesses, two week seasonal breaks that are now described as "district work periods," and a string of other holidays that can last for a week or more. For the average, 40-hour-a-week worker, the idea of taking off the month of August seems, well, a bit excessive.

Especially when vacationing lawmakers leave behind a pile of unfinished work on which life, liberty and prosperity, and, indeed, our country's future, depends.

We still haven't gotten a firm handle on the government's monster $1 trillion budget deficit -- the fifth one in a row for President Obama who never met a spending bill he didn't like. We've been borrowing that much or more every year in order to pay the bills for national security, entitlements, food stamps, unemployment benefits and hundreds of other programs both large and small.

This adds to the government's ballooning debt that has risen by $6 trillion since Obama took office, and will likely leap to $20 trillion by the time he leaves office in January 2017.

There's been some modest progress of late. Budgets for fiscal 2014 were not only passed in both chambers of Congress, this was the Senate's first budget in four years. It was getting to be a great deal harder for the Democrats to blame Republicans for the budget impasse when they refused to produce one of their own.

Unfortunately, the competing spending blueprints they produced are about as far apart as Earth is from Neptune.

The House bill, shaped by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, would end the deficits and balance the budget through $5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. It would reform entitlements to bring their costs in line with future beneficiary growth, block grant Medicaid to the states and repeal Obamacare.

The Senate budget makes relatively few spending cuts, raises taxes by $1 trillion, barely touches entitlements, and doesn't balance the budget. Instead, it adds trillions of dollars to the debt. Four Democrats voted against it, and one Democrat didn't vote at all. It squeaked through with 50 votes, hardly a strong vote of confidence for their soak the rich fiscal policies.

The budget process calls for the two chambers to hash out their differences in a conference committee, but it's hard to see how they'll be able to bridge the policy gulf that separates them. "At this point in time, I don't know how we go forward," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.

Throw in immigration reform, which hasn't even reached the formal proposal stages yet, though it's drawing support from some of Congress's staunchest conservatives. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- who's picked up the libertarian banner from his father, Ron Paul -- is the latest senator to offer a plan that offers a path to legalizing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

The gun control debate now seems all-but-stalled after Majority Leader Harry Reid declared he cannot find more than 40 Democratic votes in a chamber his party controls.

But for all those who fear we are forever saddled with a hopelessly dysfunctional government that is incapable of dealing with these and other challenges, consider what happened just before lawmakers left for their spring break.

The short-term funding measure that was due to expire at the end of this month, threatening a government shut-down, didn't happen because both sides got together and hammered out a compromise.

House Republicans stood their ground and agreed to a a 2012 budget bill sent over by the Senate that will keep the government funded through the end of this fiscal year which ends Sept. 30.

What happened is that the White House and the Senate Democrats effectively threw in the towel on the sequester cuts that Obama wanted eliminated or changed, charging they would plunge the country into poverty and pestilence.

The bill locked the $85 billion in sequester spending reductions that Republicans demanded, though it allows the Pentagon and other agencies new flexibility to choose where the cuts will fall.

That threw the president into an uncomfortable situation where he was boxed into signing the budget bill that will make deep cuts in the very programs he championed and ran on in 2012: still more infrastructure spending for roads, bridges and railways, early childhood education, lots more green energy loans and grants, and bigger research and development budgets.

Thus, Obama will have to swallow hard when he signs the budget bill that will cut into his highest priorities.

"With his signature this week, President Obama will lock into place deep spending cuts that threaten to undermine his second-term economic vision just four months after he won reelection," the Washington Post bemoaned in a front page story.

The ice-cold political reality that greeted Obama on his return from his Middle East trip is that none of his second-term policies "have come close to being enacted," the Post said. His signature nails down sequestration budget cuts he has called "dumb" and that the Post bluntly says "undermines many of the goals he laid out in the 2012 campaign."

Score a big one for both the GOP and the taxpayers, and zero for Obama. Maybe at least some our lawmakers deserved that spring break after all.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.