The Senate’s Budget Theater

May 16, 2012

It’s been over three years since Congress has passed a budget.  The obstacle to getting a budget enacted:  the U.S. Senate.  Both President Obama and the House of Representatives have met their obligations, issuing budget proposals each year, while the Senate sits on its hands.  When news broke yesterday that the Senate will vote on several budget blueprints later this afternoon, some considered this news to be a heartening development.  Not so fast.  These budget votes are more an exercise in kabuki theater than actual policymaking because none of these budgets are expected to get the votes necessary to even begin the debate.  Did you get that? The Senate isn’t voting on whether or not to pass a budget today; they are voting on whether or not to actually begin the debate on a budget.

Think about it.  It takes a simply majority vote in the Senate to begin the debate on the budget, a process so critical the Senate exempts the budget from its filibuster rule.  Why can’t they at least debate a budget?  Well, it’s an open secret in Washington that the Senate wants to avoid a budget debate because they fear it will lead to tough votes that can be used against them in upcoming elections. Budget debates open the amendment floodgates and force senators to take clear stands on a vast range of contentious fiscal and social issues by casting politically perilous votes. After all, no incumbent, Republican or Democrat, relishes the prospect of seeing his or her voting record used as a weapon in a challenger’s campaign ad. The instinct for self-preservation is understandable, but I wouldn’t exactly call it admirable.

Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who leads the Democratic majority in that chamber, has claimed that the Budget Control Act (BCA) passed in August 2011 to resolve the debt-ceiling standoff, with its enforceable discretionary spending cap of $1.047 trillion, gives him the budget he needs for the upcoming fiscal year.  Sorry, but no. Both houses of Congress and the White House have a responsibility to produce detailed budget proposals, to work through the arduous process of reconciling competing plans and to deliver an annual budget document to guide government spending for the year. That’s not just my opinion. The Senate Parliamentarian, the referee on matters of legislative process, issued a procedural ruling in March that undercuts the claim that the BCA is enough to suffice as a budget blueprint for this year. For Reid and other budget hold-outs, this ruling is a black eye.

A budget is one of the most rudimentary aspects of governing.  In fact, it’s even required by law.  Take a look for yourself:  the law requires Congress to pass a budget.  On page 926 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, it says that on or before April 15 of each year “Congress completes action on concurrent resolution on the budget.”  How can it be that Congress is able to disregard its own deadline?  Well, actually, since the law doesn’t contain any enforcement mechanisms, there are no consequences imposed on Congress if it fails to enact a budget by April 15.  Do you think you could ignore a law simply because it didn’t have any enforcement mechanisms?  Sorry, but no.

The Senate owes the American people a budget.  And the least they could do is allow the legislative body to begin debating one.

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