Why Congress Can’t Agree on Its Own Rules for Disagreeing About the Budget

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April 24 2013 9:47 PM

Disorderly Conduct

Why Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on their own rules for disagreeing about the budget.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (C) (R-KY) arrives for the weekly Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on April 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) arrives for the weekly Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on April 9, 2013, in Washington.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Congress is a mysterious place. Today, for example, the House took up measure H.R. 1071, which will specify the size of the planchets on commemorative coins issued by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Congress has the power to coin money, and this legislation amends the National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act to specify the diameter of the blanks from which gold and silver coins will be made.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This is just one of the arcane events that happen every day as a part of the congressional pageant. There are many others. Most can be safely ignored. Some of the esoteric inner workings of Congress are important, though, because the rules of the game can determine the outcome. The overuse of the filibuster has fundamentally changed the nature of the Senate, for example. Almost nothing can pass the Senate without 60 votes, as we just witnessed with gun control. Right now there is a procedural fight underway about how the House and Senate should proceed with the budget. How it resolves itself will offer some clues about whether we're headed for another summer of ad hoc budget madness or whether there is hope for a grand bargain.

The debate is about setting up a budget conference, the process by which representatives from each body are to reconcile the House and Senate budgets. That we've even gotten to this point is a victory of sorts. Senate Democrats didn’t offer a budget for four years, so there hasn’t been anything to reconcile in a long time. In the last two years, the government has budgeted by crisis. Using the flawed but irresistible analogy of the family budget, Congress has been deciding how much of which bills to pay off while the repo man and bill collector are at the front door.

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Disorder in the process created an escalating series of confrontations over funding government operations and avoiding breaking through the debt ceiling. The final insult was sequestration—across-the-board budget cuts designed never to go into effect—that are now firmly in effect. 

With the new Congress came the promise from both sides that they would return to the orderly way of doing things. We were going to spread out the bills on the kitchen table at the start of the month and be sensible.

Returning to "regular order" wouldn’t make the budget issues any easier to solve, but it did offer the possibility of draining some of the suspicion from both sides. After the supercommittee and the various gangs of senators failed to find any budget solutions, maybe the people who are actually supposed to work out the issues should have a crack at it. “We’ve been in a stalemate for four years,” House Budget chairman Paul Ryan told the National Review. “I’m very critical of the Senate’s budget, but at least they’re doing one. Let’s use this process to go through regular order to get an agreement.” Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican member on the Senate budget committee, was also a fan of regular order. “Secret deals have not worked and are an affront to popular democracy,” he argued in January. “The right process is the regular order."

Steve Bell, a longtime Senate budget veteran now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, thought it was a good sign after years of budget fishtailing. "When you're a budget person, you're never hopeful, but the fact is that I had a glimmer of what I think was optimism," he says. "I am so unfamiliar with it, it may have been a bad stomach, but it was a glimmer of hope."

The hope was based on the idea that regular order meant that both the House and Senate would follow the Budget Act. Under that act, any budget that goes through regular order is brought up under the rules of reconciliation, which means it would only need a simple majority to pass the Senate. For a grand bargain that would include tax reform and entitlement reform, the regular threshold would be very helpful. As we saw recently with legislation on background checks for gun purchases, it's hard to get 60 votes for ideas that have even 90 percent public approval. "The appointment of conferees by both sides is the hinge that will bring us the chance for tax reform and entitlement reform," says Bell, "Without that, it wouldn't go forward."

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