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The Budget Debate Should Not Be Fiscal Instant Messaging

24 Apr 2012
Posted by Stan Collender

My column from this morning's Roll Call explains why we'd all be much better off if Congress would use the federal budget debate to do something more than send messages. What else? How about a novel idea like policymaking?

Budget Process Is Not Fiscal Instant Messaging

By Stan Collender
Roll Call Contributing Writer
April 24, 2012, Midnight

One of the things that always impressed me about the earliest days of the Congressional budget process — circa 1977-80 — was how quickly Members of Congress learned to use it to send messages.

When it became clear that the House and Senate Budget committees had little real power (after all, they didn’t have the authority to increase or decrease spending or taxes or change authorizations) and when it dawned on everyone that the process was advisory rather than mandatory, the budget resolutions, the reports that accompanied the budget resolutions and the budget-related floor debates all became ways to tell something to someone.

In some cases, the messages were direct and to the point, as when a committee was told what had been assumed for a specific program or provision within its jurisdiction. In most cases, however, the message was subtler, with the budget resolution based on spending or revenue changes that were reflected in the topline numbers rather than explained in report language or in a colloquy on the floor.

Three things have changed in the decades since the budget process’s message-sending capabilities started to be understood. First, instead of primarily being used as an internal memo to talk to others on Capitol Hill, Members of Congress today use it to reach those outside the Beltway. Second, the messages that once primarily were about Budget Committee preferences on how programs and provisions should be changed are today about electoral maneuvering. Third, the subtle messaging from early days has been replaced by shameless political efforts.

That’s the only conclusion that’s possible after watching how the budget process became the political equivalent of Twitter last week. Economic policymaking — that is, what the budget process is supposed to do — was completely replaced with instant-message-like efforts that definitely were not worth the time, taxpayer money or energy it took to send the messages.

The House, which in recent years has already done enough silly things on the budget to merit a lifetime achievement award, took it one step further last week by moving ahead with reconciliation based on the instructions included in the budget resolution it passed late last month.
That may not seem to be a bad thing until you remember that reconciliation is the process that, according to the Congressional Budget Act, is used only to enforce a budget resolution conference agreement and not what either the House or Senate wants to do on its own. With the Senate already indicating that it has no plans to do a budget resolution this year, there’s no chance that there will be a budget resolution conference report and, therefore, no chance that reconciliation will occur.

That makes everything the House does to comply with the reconciliation instructions in its own budget resolution nothing more than a messaging effort by the Republican majority to tell the GOP base this is why it deserves to be re-elected. Never mind that what it passed has no chance of being enacted.

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) last week moved ahead (albeit without votes or amendments) with plans to consider a budget resolution that he proudly proclaimed was based on the recommendations included by the Bowles-Simpson commission in its final report.

Here again, that might not appear to be such a bad thing until you realize that the Bowles-Simpson commission didn’t actually produce a report. In fact, what its cult-like supporters like to call the Bowles-Simpson report is nothing more than what the commission’s two co-chairmen proposed: Their recommendation was never voted on because they didn’t have enough support from other commission members to keep the process going.

But that’s not all. The House overwhelmingly rejected the Bowles-Simpson  commission last month when something resembling what the co-chairmen proposed was offered as a substitute for the budget resolution put together by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Not only was Ryan one of the Bowles-Simpson commission members whose opposition doomed the plan when it first was recommended by the co-chairmen, he also rejected using it as the basis for what he recommended in his own committee and then voted against the Bowles-Simpson amendment when it was offered on the floor. Ryan would lead the House conferees if there were a budget resolution conference this year, so his repeated opposition means that any plan called Bowles-Simpson almost certainly is doomed before it begins. Add the embarrassing bipartisan opposition to the plan when the House debated it last month, and the possibility that it could succeed in the current environment is zero.

That makes the message — Bowles-Simpson is worthwhile, and we support it — doubly curious. The Bowles-Simpson recommendation is a thoroughly discredited concept. But, and far more importantly, in the same way that the House reconciliation efforts based on its own budget resolution have no chance of being enacted, a Bowles-Simpson-based budget resolution coming from the Senate also will go nowhere.

There are better ways to send the federal budget-related messages that need to be sent. If the House (or Senate) wants to move forward, why not actually send the other body a real message by asking it to meet to see if something can be worked out?

The alternative of just passing or considering legislation that will never become law is the type of message that will never be received.


Not that I expect you to

Not that I expect you to answer, but I actually have a question about Bowles-Simpson and what Conrad is trying to do. Based on what I've heard from Conrad in interviews etc. he is working on one of your basic premises - that there will be no time after the election to actually pass a comprehensive reform package because there is just simply no time to score it, rewrite all the other regulations that ripple from the budget and tax code etc. So it seems to me, Conrad is working with other Senators and a few others, none of whom want to be outed right now, using the Bowles Simpson plan as a framework only. They are then going to put together this grand bargain, and have the time to actually do all the nitty, gritty required to have an actual piece of legislation to vote on in December assuming Obama gets re-elected. This might all be a pipe dream, but I give him credit for actually trying to put together a plan that might have a chance. Ryan is just writing up the Ayn Rand dream list, and not even bothering to fill in the blanks on what would be cut and where.

Yep, our lawmakers don't

Yep, our lawmakers don't actually make laws most of the time - much less of the time than in the past. What they do is write PR documents in the form of legislation and wave it around. Signaling, as you say.

But that isn't harsh enough. The whole "Bowles-Simpson as the best thing since white bread" PR campaign is dishonest. These guys would not vote for Bowles-Simpson on a bet. They are not just signaling, they are lying at the same time. They need cover - a way to look like something other than self-serving obstructionists - and they have made Bowles-Simpson into the cover they need.

That understanding raises yet another ugly notion. All those pundit-y type folks who have also decided that Bowles-Simpson is a topic for serious discussion are either taking orders from the GOP or just by merest chance, hit upon Bowles-Simpson as a good idea at the same time the GOP decided it was a good propaganda tool.

write only memory

Some forty years ago Electronic Design magazine had a reader contest: devise an imaginative or amusing use for a write only memory (WOM), i.e. a device which accepts information and cannot be read. Messieurs Ryan and Conrad should be using such a device.

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