Update from the Senate Floor

We wrote yesterday about Senator Jeff Sessions’ pledge to oppose the Democrats’ efforts to circumvent the Congressional Budget Act by getting unanimous consent of the Senate to pass appropriations bills even though that practice, in the absence of a budget, is forbidden by the Act. This is an important front in the battle to bring fiscal responsibility to Washington.

This morning, the Senate has been debating this issue. We understand that John Thune, Marco Rubio and Bob Corker have all given excellent speeches on the Democrats’ fecklessness in refusing to propose and adopt a budget, as required by law. In a few minutes (if it has not already happened), Senator Sessions will rise to assert his point of order against consideration the Military Construction Appropriations bill, based on the prohibition in the CBA.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, Judge Michael McConnell, now a law professor at Stanford, addressed the Democrats’ defiance of the Congressional Budget Act:

After sending up a budget in February that would only add to government spending and deficits, President Obama has now come around to the view that “it is a moral imperative to tackle our debt and deficits in a serious way.” Both sides have to make sacrifices, he says. It is time to “eat our peas.” The president’s evident purpose is to put the blame on Republicans for failing to come to an agreement.

But the absence of any written budgetary documents and the closed-door nature of the negotiating sessions make it impossible to tell which side is being “serious” and which side is being intransigent. Instead of specific proposals, scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and open to examination by press and public, we get vague generalities about “trillions” of dollars in supposed savings based on who-knows-what changes in policy.

It is insane to think that tax and spending proposals of this complexity can be negotiated at this level of generality and put into statutory language in a matter of weeks. Didn’t the health-care fiasco teach us anything about the importance of transparent and responsible legislative process?

Wise or foolish, this budgetary game of chicken is contrary to law. In 1974, Congress enacted the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which sets specific deadlines and procedures for raising revenue, setting spending priorities, and adjusting the debt limit—all in the sunshine of public scrutiny, with objective evaluation of all plans by the CBO.

By April 1, according to the Budget Act, the House and the Senate must either adopt the president’s budget or put forward an alternative. They cannot just hide in the weeds. The House and Senate reports must detail any differences from the president’s budget and explain the “economic assumptions” underlying them. By April 15, Congress must adopt a concurrent resolution embodying a congressional budget. Appropriations bills must stay within this budget or be subject to a point of order.

The House of Representatives complied with the law, passing a budget that would reduce spending by an estimated $5.8 trillion over 10 years (according to the CBO). The Senate has not passed a budget. In fact, the Senate has not passed a budget since 2009.

This defiance of the Budget Act is responsible for the current blamefest in Washington. The law was intended to bring transparency and timeliness to debates over taxing and spending. All proposals are public, and all are scored by the CBO according to the same metric. This makes it difficult for politicians to shift blame. This year, without a genuine presidential budget, or any Senate budget, the negotiations are shrouded in fog. The president may tell press conferences that he proposed $3 trillion in spending reductions, but there is no way to know what that means without a budget.

To give some pertinent examples: We have no way of knowing whether the president’s claimed reduction in deficit spending is based on current spending or on projected spending. The difference is probably about $1.8 trillion over 10 years.

Likewise, we have no way of knowing whether the proposed spending cuts are real. All too often in past budget deals, the “spending cuts” were based on gimmicks, or on promises of future cuts that never actually were made. For example, Congress has promised to pay doctors, hospitals and drug companies less for performing the same services. This never really happens.

The House budget contains a specific proposal for reducing the future cost of Medicare. The administration prefers an expert commission that will supposedly find hundreds of billions of dollars in painless savings from undisclosed changes. A real budget would specify the changes so that the public could compare the two alternatives. …

The Budget Act was designed to force all competing plans to be disclosed publicly and evaluated according to the same baselines and criteria. It is too late to meet the Act’s deadlines, but our leaders could still comply with its spirit.

If the president would put his plan into budgetary language, as the House already has done, and make it available to the CBO, the public could readily see who is being serious in the negotiations. We would know whether we have been offered a bracing helping of peas, or a misleading mess of pottage. As it is, the president has put a covered dish on the table and, thanks to noncompliance with the Budget Act, we do not know what it contains.

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