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We Are Not, or Should Not Be, Amused Right Now

Almost everything about the federal budget is serious business. But there have been many times over the past few weeks when it’s been really hard not to be amused — and not in a good way — by much of what’s been said.

[IMGCAP(1)]For example, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) made headlines recently when he said he couldn’t accept some of the proposals included in President Barack Obama’s budget. Others have criticized Congress for having its own ideas on the budget, rather than just going along with what the president requested.

That’s funny. It’s obviously true that Obama was elected with a comparatively large majority; his job-approval rating is still high; many freshman Representatives and Senators probably owe at least part of their own election to the president; and the ability of these Members to get re-elected likely rests to a some extent on the success of the economic program embodied in the president’s budget. So it’s understandable if at least a little allegiance to the White House is expected. And yes, Conrad is a member of the same political party as the president, so his criticism of parts of the budget stings more than if it came from a Republican.

But after years of doing whatever the Bush administration wanted, the House and Senate are acting on their own now, rather than as part of the White House’s government affairs team. So you have to wonder why anyone is critical of Congress when it is showing the independence that many said was lacking before.

At least on the budget, this is, in fact, what’s supposed to happen. One of the primary reasons that the Congressional Budget Act was put in place in 1974 was to give Congress the ability to critically review what the president proposed so that, if it wanted, it could come up with its own plan for taxing and spending. That is precisely what the Budget committees and Congressional Budget Office were created to do.

Contrary to what some are currently saying, a budget resolution that doesn’t move in lock step with the administration’s budget means the Congressional budget process is working and not that there are troubles in political paradise. In addition, a budget resolution that doesn’t assume what the administration proposed doesn’t mean a proposal is dead. That may, in fact, be true. But it’s important to remember that budget resolutions make no line-by-line or program decisions. That is left up to the committees with substantive jurisdiction over those areas and, depending on how the resolution is written, in many cases, they may still be able to move forward with the president’s plans later in the year.

Another example of things being said that make so little sense that you have to laugh is what some folks expressed shortly after the House passed the American International Group tax bill last week.

Shortly after the bill was adopted, CNBC host/pundit/commentator/analyst Mark Haines asked on the air when we were going to learn that bad things happen whenever the government moves too quickly.

But Haines and many of his colleagues at CNBC also frequently said in recent months that when it comes to Wall Street bailouts, financial rescue packages and stimulus bills, they don’t understand why it takes Congress so long to get things done. They demanded rapid action on the $150 billion Bush administration-proposed stimulus bill that was enacted in February 2008. They expressed absolute exasperation last fall when the House voted down the first version of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s plan and used a persistently and highly skeptical tone to ask whether Congress understood that was needed immediately. This is part of the plan that they are now criticizing because it was too hastily enacted and didn’t envision the AIG fiasco.

And, until the details were released Monday, they have repeatedly been critical of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for taking so much time to develop his plan.

That’s what makes all of this so amusing. They want rapid action on money issues when everything works out but condemn the action when it doesn’t.

Finally, the increasingly acrimonious debate over whether reconciliation instructions should be included in this year’s budget resolution is a hoot, at least by federal budget standards.

Although it’s not at all clear that this was even an afterthought when reconciliation was first conceived in 1974, its primary value these days is that, like a budget resolution, a reconciliation bill is one of the very few pieces of legislation that can’t be filibustered in the Senate and, therefore, only requires a simple majority to be adopted. It being used by the majority is always of great concern to the Senate minority because its primary weapon — the need for the majority to get 60 votes to invoke cloture to stop a filibuster — is eliminated.

What’s so funny about this current situation is that so many of those who are adamantly against allowing reconciliation to be used this year have been some of its biggest proponents in the past, and they clearly have no shame in taking a completely different position now than they did before. For example, many of those who had no problem using reconciliation to pass the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration are adamantly against using it now.

There are legitimate concerns about using reconciliation to pass legislation that has nothing to do with the budget. But the Byrd Rule, a procedure that was specifically established to prevent that from occurring, already makes it very hard to do and provides a way to prevent the legislation that those opposed to reconciliation say they fear — like health care reform — from being adopted without a supermajority.

As I said, you really can’t help but laugh, or cry, at all of this.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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