Senators readying their patience, their reading material and even their bladders for the annual ritual known as the “vote-a-rama” may rightfully be getting ready to ask, “Will it be worth it?”
The answer, predictably, depends on who’s posing the question. A look back over the past decade reveals a divide that countermands the conventional wisdom. For those wishing to make life miserable in the next elections for their Senate colleagues across the aisle, the answer is a version of, “Not so much.” For those hoping to uncover hidden pockets of legislative momentum, the answer is, “Sometimes.”
The process starting Thursday afternoon, and probably extending into early Friday morning, will be less a debate than an odd combination of policy-defining sprint and parliamentary endurance test. The rules particular to the annual budget resolution provide that after the maximum 30 hours of deliberation have ended, senators may propose an infinite number of amendments and — with essentially no intervening discussion — obtain “the yeas and nays” on each idea.
Legend has it this marathon produces something on the order of 100 roll calls, which in recent years would have been more than a third of the Senate’s total for the year. That’s a significant exaggeration. Many senators withdraw their amendments after making the rhetorical point and others accept quick defeat for their ideas by voice vote, so the number of recorded votes has averaged 36 during the budget debates so far in this century. (Five times since 2000, the majority party couldn’t get its intramural house in order and so there was no budget debate, including last year.) The most recent vote-a-rama, two years ago, stands as the most extensive — with 47 amendment roll calls.
A glance back at recent campaigns suggests few of those votes played prominently in attack ad highlight reels. But several have revealed the existence of broad bipartisan coalitions in favor of policies that were thought to be intractably deadlocked.
In the 2014 midterm elections, the budget was invoked most prominently by small-government, big energy and conservative groups. They created advertisements contending three highly vulnerable Democrats — Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — had voted to impose a new federal tax on oil, gas and coal usage. (Such a carbon tax is hailed by many environmentalists as a top option for combating climate change.)
All three lost in the end, but coverage of their races suggests each worked pretty successfully to contest the claim as misleadingly oversimplified. Begich and Udall voted for language declaring that, if such a tax were ever created, the revenue should be applied entirely to deficit reduction. Hagan voted to support a different theoretical concept — permitting some undrafted future carbon tax proposal to be passed (or defeated) by simple congressional majority.
The situation illustrates why budget amendments provide poor fodder for all but the most misleading 30-second televised brickbats. To begin with, the proposals are not legislation, but non-binding expressions of sentiment. Plus, the language is often infused with so much procedural jargon and so many double negatives that its true meaning is difficult to decipher.
Despite all that, senators rarely get so far up the electoral food chain without a pretty keen ability to steer clear of political traps. Even amid the blizzard of vague language and parliamentary trickery that clogs the floor during the budget debate’s climatic hours, they can generally be counted on to perceive and deflect the “gotcha” attempts from the opposing side. (And if they don’t, their colleagues, leadership and staff are all there to steer them clear.) That’s why, even as they’re signaling thumbs-up or thumbs-down, senators have generally become comfortable with the political risks and already are refining their talking-point responses.
The other sort of amendment that infuses every vote-a-rama — proposals designed to gauge the depth of support for actual legislation in the offing — has a more measurable rate of success. Such test-marketing efforts during the 2013 debate, for example, produced lopsided bipartisan majorities that have shaped three of the most intense domestic policy debates ever since.
Two years ago, 62 senators went on record in support of constructing the Keystone XL pipeline — a show of approval that fueled the subsequently intense campaign for legislation mandating construction of the project. Of the 17 Democratic “yes” votes in 2013, six have subsequently been replaced with Republicans and two changed their minds. But in the end, majorities of the exact same size — 62 senators — cleared the bill this winter and then voted (unsuccessfully) in favor of overriding President Barack Obama’s veto.
The story was similar, if less conclusive, on the topic of Internet sales taxes. A budget amendment found 75 senators in favor of permitting cities and states to collect sales taxes from residents who buy online from retailers in other states. The surprising outcome gave a jolt to a debate that had languished at the Capitol for longer than a decade, and just two months later 69 of those senators passed legislation to permit sales taxes on Internet purchases that cross state lines. (The proposal still faces an uphill slog in the more tax-averse House.)
Finally, there’s the medical device excise tax. In 2013, the vote was a lopsided 79-20 in favor of repealing the special 2.3 percent levy on medical equipment, created to help defray the cost of the Affordable Care Act. It was no surprise that every Republican voted to get rid of the tax, given their shared dream of repealing the law. What was more important — and remains an indication the tax remains near the top of the Obamacare chopping block — is that 34 Democrats agreed.
The message is clear: Look for this vote-a-rama to say more about the legislative agenda for the coming months than about the campaign of the coming year.