It’s not a markup if you don’t vote

It’s not a markup if you don’t vote

The Congressional Budget Act requires the House and Senate to pass a budget resolution by April 15th. Under Democratic control the Senate has not done so since 2009.

Last year Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) committed to his ranking member, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), that the committee would mark up a budget resolution this year.  By itself that’s only a first step but it’s a lot more than the Senate has done in the past three years.

Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) has repeatedly said that he will not bring a budget resolution to the floor this year.  If Leader Reid were to carry out such a threat he would be violating the Budget Act requirement, but until now the issue has been moot. As long as the committee has not reported, the responsibility to act and blame for legislative inaction falls on Chairman Conrad.  If the committee reports a budget resolution then the responsibility for action and blame for inaction shift to Leader Reid.

Chairman Conrad’s announcement

Today Chairman Conrad announced that:

  • Tomorrow he “will begin a Budget Committee markup of a long-term budget plan.”  (Begin, not complete.)
  • He will propose the Bowles-Simpson recommendations as his Chairman’s mark.
  • He “recognize[s] that adjustments will have to be made to this plan before it can be adopted,” including that “it needs to be further updated to account for changes that have occurred since it was drafted in 2010.”
  • “Those adjustments will have to be negotiated on a bipartisan basis, and those negotiations will take time.”  (Why wait until April 17th to start that process?)
  • He “intend[s] to give Members of the Committee an extended period to evaluate my Chairman’s Mark. The initial phase of the markup will end on Wednesday.  We will have statements, but we will not complete our work tomorrow.”
  • “I recognize the chances of [reaching agreement on a long-term plan right now] are slim.”

I imagine Chairman Conrad will receive favorable press coverage for proposing the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson recommendations.  If he doesn’t use his power as Chairman to force a vote, however, then his proposal is little more than an interesting debate topic.

Unless I’m missing something Chairman Conrad is not marking up a budget resolution tomorrow.  He is instead convening the committee for a discussion.  He will lay down the Bowles-Simpson numbers as his own and everyone will talk.  Then he will adjourn the meeting tomorrow without any votes, without any date to reconvene, without any deadline or forcing action for private bipartisan negotiations he hopes will then occur but for which he has low expectations of success.

It’s not a markup if you don’t vote.

Talking vs. voting

The job of a Member of Congress is to vote on legislation, not to talk about legislation.  Talk is sometimes helpful but If Members of Congress are not voting they’re not doing their job.

Press coverage often equates public statements with votes.  That’s a huge mistake. While it’s easy to speak against a policy you oppose, casting a vote against it increases the public pressure on you to support an alternative and cast an affirmative vote for it.  Even failed votes can drive legislative progress by pressuring members to say what they’re for, not just what they’re against.

For a few years the Senate has had a problem of talking rather than voting, especially on fiscal policy.

  • Leader Reid is not blocking a budget resolution reported by the Budget Committee. He is saying he will block a budget resolution if one is reported by the Committee.
  • Leader Reid says he won’t bring a budget resolution to the floor because he knows that it would be impossible to reach a conference agreement with those wild and crazy House Republicans. If the committee were to report a budget resolution, then Leader Reid would be forced to back up his verbal threat with a procedural decision not to bring the resolution to the floor.  The threat and the decision to enforce that threat are fundamentally different, because the threat could be a bluff or the conditions surrounding the decision could change when it’s confronted.
  • The Senate Democratic majority has for three years verbally attacked the House-passed budget resolutions but has not marked up a budget resolution in committee or brought one to the Senate floor.  Senate Democrats have talked but not acted legislatively, and as the majority they have primary responsibility to act.
  • It appears Chairman Conrad plans to propose a budget but not to force any Members of his committee to vote on it.  Instead everyone will just talk about his proposal.

Senate Republicans are not blameless here. For three years they have justifiably attacked the Democratic majority for failing to uphold their responsibility to pass a budget, but the Senate minority has not offered their own budget resolutions.  The primary responsibility for action rests with the majority, but the minority has opportunities to act and to force votes as well, especially in the Senate.  Senate Republicans have generally chosen not to do so. They have, however, talked a lot.

To their credit both the House majority and minority(!) have proposed and voted on budget alternatives.  House Republicans have done so each year since they regained the majority, and this year even House Democrats, led by Committee Ranking Member Van Hollen, offered an alternative budget and forced a floor vote.  I strongly oppose the substance of the Van Hollen amendment but House Democrats at least deserve credit for putting their votes where their rhetoric is.  House Republicans deserve extra credit for carrying out their legislative responsibilities and taking electoral risk while knowing that the Senate was unlikely to to the same.

Tomorrow’s Senate Budget Committee discussion

It is possible that tomorrow’s discussion will lead to a sudden outpouring of bipartisan legislative action in the Senate. The Gang of Six, who fouled up the Obama-Boehner grand bargain negotiations last year with their weak policy and poor timing, have a chance to redeem themselves by supporting the Conrad mark and demanding the committee and full Senate vote on it.  They could form the beginning of a legislative center that could pressure both party leaders to act.  I oppose the Bowles-Simpson recommendations because they would result in too big of a federal government, but nonetheless I think that voting on Senator Conrad’s implementation of those recommendations would represent legislative progress.  At least members would be making choices and backing them up with votes, and I would hope that Senate Republicans would then propose an alternative that would be more to my liking.

If tomorrow Chairman Conrad does not use the power he has to drive the process forward I don’t see why we should anticipate any legislative progress.  Last fall the Super Committee had a formally binding process and a fixed deadline and they failed to negotiate a compromise. This is now an election year.  Chairman Conrad has missed his deadline and appears unlikely to create a new one. He seems resigned to the likelihood that his proposal will go nowhere, but that is in large part a result of his apparent decision not to force either the committee members or the full Senate to vote on his proposal.

The Senate has spent three years talking about fiscal policy.  Senators have a responsibility to vote on specific proposals even if they know those votes will fail.  As Budget Committee Chairman it is Senator Conrad’s responsibility to force the Senate to act, not just to offer an interesting proposal for discussion.

(photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

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