A few years ago, the departing Canadian ambassador to the United States, Frank McKenna, told a National Press Club audience that, after spending two years here, he had finally cracked the code to how Washington works: “There is not one U.S. government,— he said, “there are two — the executive and the legislative.—
[IMGCAP(1)]Nowhere is that more evident than in our federal budget process. There is not one government budget, but two: the president’s budget and Congress’ budget. The former, for all its excruciating detail and tables, is merely a recommendation to Congress. The latter, while characterized in the media as a nonbinding outline that doesn’t become law, is still the one that counts the most. It is what guides committees in making the detailed budgetary decisions that do become law.
In parliamentary systems, the “government’s budget— is usually adopted “on the nod— (by voice vote) since the prime minister and Cabinet secretaries are members of the ruling majority within the parliament. If a government’s budget should fail, the government would likely fall.
In the U.S., Congress may fail to adopt a final “concurrent resolution on the budget,— but there are still fallback mechanisms in the rules and law that allow the appropriations, revenue, debt and entitlement measures to move forward — it’s just a bit messier and more time-consuming.
Some foreign (and domestic) observers may wonder why it is that the Democratically controlled Congress has not totally embraced the president’s budget. Why would Democrats in Congress differ with their party’s leader, who has an electoral mandate, widespread public approval and political momentum?
Congressional Democrats would likely give you three answers. First, under the Constitution, Congress controls the purse strings. Second, the final budget will still largely reflect the president’s priorities, though it may diverge somewhat on bottom-line amounts and how to achieve them. Third, Democratic leaders will need majority votes in both chambers to pass anything, all without expecting any Republican support. That means accommodating the Democrats’ multi-hued caucus factions that come in a variety of shades, stripes and colors (can you say Blue Dog?).
The administration’s budget numbers were jaw-dropping even before the Congressional Budget Office weighed in with its more conservative economic assumptions that added another $2.3 trillion in deficits to the president’s estimates over the next 10 years. So it’s understandable that Democratic budget chiefs needed to curtail some of the president’s pecuniary proclivities if they hoped to adopt a budget resolution in both houses.
Moreover, as a former Senator, the president knew full well Congress would tinker with some of his wish list before the process was completed, and he welcomed the input so long as his major priorities in health, energy and education remained intact. The president challenged Congress in those areas in which it did not agree with his funding mechanisms (read: tax changes) to devise its own alternatives as long as they paid for the things that needed to be done. This is the normal give-and-take that occurs between the branches in the budget process, and the president had no illusions that he could slam-dunk his budget through Congress without change (as much as he may love that basketball metaphor).
What has attracted the most attention at this stage in the process is the differences between the chambers over whether the budget resolution should contain reconciliation instructions to House and Senate committees to report legislation making changes in entitlements and revenues by a date certain. The House-passed resolution contained instructions to the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor committees to report by Sept. 29 health care and college financial aid reforms that on net, in each instance, reduces the deficit by $1 billion over the next five years. The Senate resolution contained no such instructions.
The main advantage of using reconciliation in the Senate is that it requires just 51 votes to pass the bill and avoids the prospect of a filibuster that takes 60 votes to stop. The main argument being used against reconciliation is that the process was intended primarily for deficit reduction purposes, and not for enacting major new policy initiatives.
As Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) pointed out, the “Byrd rule— in the Senate establishes points of order against provisions in reconciliation bills that are not directly related to changes in mandatory spending or revenues. This could leave a major health care reform bill looking like “Swiss cheese,— Conrad argued, if all the nonfiscal, programmatic provisions were knocked out on points of order. The only saving mechanism in such situations is a vote by 60 Senators to waive the Byrd rule against the offending provisions. But that throws you back into that thorny, super-majority briar patch.
Conrad’s preference was to let health care proceed on a separate track. If it were thwarted by Republicans, then it would still be possible later for the House and Senate to adopt a second budget resolution that contains reconciliation instructions for Senate committees on health care. At least in that manner, the Republicans would have had a chance to demonstrate whether they were truly interested in developing a bipartisan approach on health care.
If the GOP did not cooperate, it could not then complain that the Democrats foreclosed minority participation by first reaching for the blunt instrument of reconciliation — a process that historically has been highly partisan. In the meantime, the House would have advanced the ball on health and education legislation by retaining reconciliation instructions to its committees in the first budget resolution.
However, Democratic leaders and the president prevailed on Conrad and other conferees Friday to include reconciliation instructions in the pending budget resolution, despite a threatened GOP backlash. The president is again demonstrating he is not afraid to set aside his vaunted goal of bipartisanship in favor of expediency — all in time for a 100-day party.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.