Why, after all these years, the Senate is working on a budget

Senate Democrats didn't pass a budget resolution for the previous three years, but they are taking steps to do it this year. Three things, in particular, have changed.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill last week following a Democratic strategy session.

Ever since 1974, it has been the law of the land that Congress pass an annual budget, yet it has been nearly four years since the US Senate participated in the process. 

Even without this legally mandated budget – a nonbinding roadmap for taxing and spending committees – the government can function.

Moreover, budget resolutions were typically passed at least a month late or, more and more recently, not at all. Congress failed to complete a budget resolution for fiscal years 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2012, or 2013.

This week, the Senate starts debate on its first budget resolution to head to the floor since 2009, raising an obvious question:

Why, after all the omissions and delays, is the Senate acting now – and in such an unusually timely way?

Here are the three reasons cited by lawmakers.

No. 1: No budget, no pay

For the first time, senators (and other members of Congress) won’t get paid unless they pass a budget resolution.

The idea of hitting lawmakers in the purse sprung from No Labels, a grass-roots, nonpartisan group that aims to break partisan gridlock in Washington and "make Congress work."

“If you actually have regular order on the budget, even in a divided Congress, both parties put their conceptions of the right course for the country on the table, and that’s good for democracy,” says Bill Galston, a co-founder of No Labels, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

The idea caught on. The Senate held a hearing in March 2012 and Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," among others, covered it. The House did not take up the proposal, but the veteran House chair who punted on holding a hearing on the measure was narrowly defeated in November by a Democratic challenger who campaigned on “no budget, no pay."

In January, House Republicans included a revised version of the measure as a sweetener in the debt-ceiling deal that suspended enforcement of the $16.4 trillion limit through May 19. The No Budget, No Pay Act passed Jan. 23 on a bipartisan vote, 285 to 144. The Senate passed the House bill on Jan. 31.

Now, if the House or Senate fails to pass its own budget resolution by April 15, pay for members will be held in an escrow account until (1) a budget is passed, or (2) the end of the 113th Congress in December 2014.

Senate Republicans say that’s the reason that Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada gave the nod to the Budget Committee to mark up a budget this week and take it to the floor.

“ ‘No budget, no pay’ made so much sense, they just couldn’t think of an argument against it,” says Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas. Senate Democrats dispute that view. (See No. 3.)

No. 2: Sequestration

The “sequester” spending cuts now extending security lines at airports, voiding passes to tour the White House, and limiting visits to the south rim of the Grand Canyon are becoming a reality for Americans and the lawmakers that represent them – and $85 billion in across-the-board cuts for the current fiscal year is just the beginning. The Budget Control Act mandates a total of $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts over 10 years.

With congressional approval ratings at record lows, many senators say that punting on an open, transparent budget process is no longer politically defensible.

“We’re now at the point where sequestration is in effect,” says Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland. “If we can get a broader budget understanding, then we can deal with things to replace sequestration.”

It’s a view of the process that’s shared across party lines. Estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is on track to nearly double over the next decade set off alarms on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the domestic budget cuts targeted by sequestration signal even deeper cuts to come.

“The stars are beginning to align on what needs to be done. There’s a growing realization that we have to address these numbers, and that reality is sinking in,” says Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

“Allowing the democratic process to work will be helpful in getting to a solution,” he adds, even though the budget resolutions produced by the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House are far apart.

“There will be very big differences [in the House and Senate budget resolutions]. The debate will appear partisan to some,” he adds. "But letting our constituents know where we stand will make it easier for both sides to come together and find a solution to a problem that everyone acknowledges.”

No. 3: No elections

Senate Democrats say that the reason that the majority leader blocked floor votes on a budget resolution for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 was because the Budget Control Act, which resolved the debt-limit crisis in 2011, set caps for spending for those years, so a budget resolution was not needed.

“We had two years of the Budget Control Act,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, a member of the budget panel. “We did it in a different way the last two years, but we did it.”

However, Senator Reid also blocked then-Budget chairman Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota from taking a budget resolution passed by his panel to the floor in 2010 for FY 2011. With close midterm elections, Reid didn’t want to expose vulnerable Democrats to the unlimited amendments and recorded votes on tough issues for Democrats in conservative states that the budget process allows.

But President Obama will not be running for election again, and senators won’t face voters until at least 2014. At a private meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus on Tuesday, the president urged Democrats to go forward with a budget resolution.

“The message from the White House was: ‘We’ve got to get [a budget resolution] done, and it’s got to be balanced and responsible, and we need to focus on economic growth,’ ” said Senator Stabenow.

“The campaign is over,” says Senator Portman. “I think the president realizes that for the good of the country and for his legacy we have to deal with these issues; otherwise, we will have added more debt in his eight years probably than the previous presidents in the history of our great country combined. And that’s not a legacy that I think he or any of us want.”

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