Post-Mortem on the Budget Resolution Debate

This is just to tie up any remaining loose ends for you on the weekend’s legislative action on a congressional budget resolution for fiscal year 2014.

As you heard, the Senate passed its version of a budget resolution, to provide the opposite bookend – on a very, very long shelf – to the House version.  Some have argued that the House resolution “jump-started” the budget process, and that the Senate version “set the stage” for a hard and contentious conference.  Neither did any such thing.  The greatest likelihood, though admittedly not a certainty, is that you already have seen the sum and total of meaningful action on a budget resolution for next year – hence a “post-mortem” is fully in order.

There may be an initial meeting of a conference committee on the resolution, but it most likely will be what in the trade is called a “photo-op” meeting.  That is, Members from the two chambers gather, and the press is invited to take pictures.  The Members read their opening statements.  Then the meeting is adjourned, and the Members leave subject to the call of the chair – a call that never comes.  There is no rule that different bills that pass the two chambers must be reconciled and enacted; history is replete with bills that passed the two chambers in different versions and went no further.  This instance seems a prime candidate to enter that gallery.

The Budget Act requires that the Congress pass a budget resolution, but it also provides a procedure in case it does not.  And no one ever has gone to Budget Jail for failing to pass one; Budget Jail was grossly (indeed totally) understaffed even before the recent spending sequester.  You will recall that the recent “no-budget, no-pay” law is satisfied by each individual chamber passing its own budget; there is no requirement that the Congress reconcile the two and pass a single, final budget resolution.  So any motivation from that provision has been fully sated.

The passage of the Senate resolution did provide good theater.  The Senate normally allows unlimited debate (which is what a filibuster is), but a primary motivation of the creation of the current budget process was to prevent the budget from being talked to death.  The compromise that was struck was to allow Senate floor consideration, even after the statutorily limited time for debate has expired, of any and all amendments filed before a deadline.  This yields the notorious “vote-a-rama,” during which amendments are voted on even though they cannot be debated.  The process ends only when all of the filed amendments are voted upon (typically many are withdrawn without a vote) or the Senators give up in exhaustion, whichever occurs first.  This year’s marathon extended almost until dawn on Saturday morning.

But all of those undebated votes have no real significance.  The budget resolution is only a concurrent resolution, and cannot become law.  Any amendments to the resolution – some mentioned prominently in the press this year relate to the Keystone XL pipeline, sales taxation of Internet transactions, and the 2010 healthcare law’s provisions for a tax on medical devices and a reduction of the maximum contribution to flexible spending accounts for out-of-pocket medical bills – are purely advisory.  The recent push for a budget resolution in the Senate was thought by some to be a necessary first step toward meaningful negotiations.  That might be, but a more cynical interpretation is that the vote-a-rama provided an unlimited opportunity to force votes on artfully worded amendments for purposes of attack ads for future election campaigns.

Even the most charitable interpretation of the intent of all those amendment votes must include that they do not predetermine any subsequent votes actually to change the law.  If a real bill comes along, Senators can find ways to prevent its ever coming to a vote.  And there always are details in actual legislation to justify a Senator’s vote that is seemingly contradictory to an earlier vote on an amendment to the budget resolution.  A Senator could point to some other provision of a later bill as requiring a contrary vote.  The later bill might have an unacceptable budgetary offset to the bill’s cost, or it might have no offset at all.  So one should not leap to the conclusion that a vote on an amendment to a budget resolution is a harbinger of future action to the same effect.

It is certainly better to have action on a budget resolution than not.  (And if you have a strong position on a particular issue, it is better to have a favorable vote on a budget resolution amendment than not.)  To say that a budget resolution is a necessary condition for serious action on our budget problem probably goes too far, though one might make a case that a full and fair debate on a resolution would facilitate success.  But it unquestionably would be way off the mark to say that a budget resolution is a sufficient condition for solving our deep-seated problem.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was reported in the press to have expressed skepticism at the prospect for a budget resolution conference.  Whether you agree with Senator Reid on the issues or not, he has a good sense of the politics of the Senate – and he has the authority to make the key decisions.  To paraphrase an old Washington friend of mine, the House and Senate passage of their budget resolutions plus $2.50 will buy you a day-old cheese sandwich – and not a very good one at that.

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