When press reports on the morning of April 24 indicated that House and Senate Democratic leaders and top White House staff had reached tentative agreement on a budget conference report the previous evening, it was clear a legislative juggernaut was under way.
[IMGCAP(1)]It was just two days after the House had approved the budget resolution and the day after the Senate had appointed its conferees. Moreover, most Members of both bodies had already left town. The legislation had obviously been put on a fast track to meet a magical, mystical deadline the following Wednesday: the 100th day of Barack Obama’s administration. All that was needed on Monday was ratification of the agreement by the House-Senate conference committee.
Arbitrary deadlines are curious things. If adhered to, deadlines often force hasty action that produces mistakes, miscalculations and misunderstandings. If a deadline is not met, the leadership is left to explain in embarrassment why it was not able to deliver on its pledge of action by a date certain.
The 100-day deadline for the budget was an especially artificial target because the president does not sign Congressional budget resolutions; they are Congress’ alternative to the president’s blueprint. Nevertheless, the concept had appeal: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Congress had a nice gift for the president on his 100th day in office — say a resounding affirmation of his budget priorities?— (And indeed, that’s what the president led with at his press conference on Day 100.)
The plan was for the conferees to meet Monday afternoon to approve the agreement, followed by the filing of the conference report shortly thereafter. The House would act first on Tuesday, followed by Senate approval on Wednesday (deadline day). But the conference meeting Monday broke up without agreement as the Senate balked at a House proposal, inspired by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, to enshrine pay-as-you-go rules in law.
PAYGO originated as part of the Budget Enforcement Act in the 1990 reconciliation bill. It required that legislation proposing new direct spending or revenue reductions not result in any net cost. Put another way, the net cost of any tax reductions or entitlement benefit increases in a bill must be made deficit-neutral by offsetting the costs with revenue increases and/or entitlement cuts. While the PAYGO law expired in late 2002, the Senate has had its own separate PAYGO rule since 1993 (revised in May 2007), and the new House Democratic majority revived PAYGO as part of House rules in January 2007.
It wasn’t until later Monday that Democratic leadership aides felt the Blue Dogs had been given sufficient assurances of future action on a PAYGO statute that the requisite signatures were rounded up on the conference report. The report was not filed until 11:35 p.m. Monday, but it presumably was still on track for a House vote the following day.
The House Rules Committee reported two special rules to grease the skids for the conference report. However, during consideration of the second rule, the panel’s Democratic manager, Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), executed a rarely used procedural device by offering an amendment to his own special rule. The amendment read, quite simply, “The Chair may postpone further consideration of the conference report to such time as may be designated by the Speaker.— Clearly something was still amiss with the conference report that would require additional delay on its final approval.
There was some speculation the delay was designed to ensure Democrats would not break their word to post bills on the Internet at least 24 hours before floor consideration (the budget conference report had been up for just half that time). But that explanation was too smooth (to the point of being slippery). What became apparent was that Democratic leaders still weren’t sure they had sufficient votes to pass the conference report.
Some Blue Dogs still lagged in their support, not convinced that a statutory PAYGO was a sure thing. To seal the deal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) produced a signed letter on Tuesday promising strict enforcement of PAYGO, or enactment of a PAYGO law. (Obama had sent a similar letter to Capitol Hill the previous Friday calling for enactment of a PAYGO law.)
The House began debating the conference report Tuesday, but reserved a final block of debate time until Wednesday. It then approved the conference report around noon, 233-193 (with 17 Democrats voting no). The Senate voted its approval around 5:30 p.m., 53-43 (with only three Democrats breaking ranks), all in plenty of time for the president’s celebratory news conference at 8 p.m.
How big a bone were the Blue Dogs thrown? It was relatively small when you consider how in the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the House Democratic leadership gave the Blue Dogs all manner of votes on budget reform bills that subsequently went nowhere in the Senate. Moreover, a statutory PAYGO law would still be considered part of the rules of the House and Senate and therefore could be waived under each body’s constitutional right to change its rules.
No amount of attempted loophole plugging by statute can trump Congress’ ability to alter its rules at any time to work its will. At most, such laws can erect a few more wickets to pass through. That’s why it’s unlikely the Senate will play PAYGO croquet with the House.
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.