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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

The inscrutable political budget process


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The Democratic-controlled Senate passed its first budget in four years. The budget process used by Congress was set up by the Congressional Budget Act. It requires the passage of a budget resolution every year. Why would the U.S. Senate violate their own laws? Do voters even care? Probably not, and this is why this column will be of little interest to most readers. Sorry — but a larger issue is at stake.

The U.S. Senate has a reputation of being the world’s oldest and supposedly most deliberative body. (According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the House of Representatives has never failed to pass a budget under this law.)

The unvarnished truth is that the average voter has no idea how the political system works. Many otherwise brilliant, well-read people can’t navigate the system either. This is not a question of fault, but one of logic. Most of us don’t even know what is under the hood of our car. So how can we ever understand the political process?

There’s nothing wrong with that. We take our car to a mechanic for the same reason we elect representatives. They’re supposed to be skilled and honest. We entrust the political process to politicians. They should have the knowledge and experience. But it has become cumbersome, arcane and all about political gamesmanship.

Consider this sage advice from two infamous politicians: Adolf Hitler observed that “Politics is a game in which every sort of trick is admissible, and in which the rules are constantly being changed by the players to suit themselves.”

Given we are talking about the Senate of the United States, it borders on absurdity for it to ignore a critical law (rules), which starts the process of crafting congressional spending resolutions — and they’ve ignored this law for four years running.

Well, as Napoleon said, “In politics absurdity is not an obstacle.”

If you watch Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in action on the floor of the Senate, you will observe a caricature of a statesman. He presents himself as a boxer who has spent too many years in the ring without headgear.

Known as the vote-a-rama, the budget process is usually an annual affair. But it had been so long since Reid and Senate Democrats have even tried to pass a budget that about half of them have no idea how grueling a process it is to vote on the myriad of amendments to a proposed bill.

The budget process is a fundamental duty of any Legislature. The Senate and the House are supposed to — by law — pass budget resolutions that set forth the framework for proposed taxation and spending for the coming fiscal year. Each chamber passes a resolution, and they invariably differ. It then goes to conference committee where they get down to brass tacks to hammer out a compromise resolution. It requires the cooperation and good faith of both chambers of Congress.

This is what a business or family does. Figure out how much revenue there will be so you can go to the next step of precise allocations — or in the case of the Congress, spending bills that have the force of law.

What prompted this article was a seemingly caustic comment by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the final passage of the budget. McConnell called the session “one of the Senate’s finest days in recent history. I commend everyone who has participated in this extraordinary debate.”

I would like to think he was just thrilled that the Senate finally went back to work — referring to the all-night session in which the Senators considered dozens of amendments — but not the end result.

He did comment later on that, “The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their budget resolution won’t become law.”

It is now in the House where it is expected to be shot down because of the continuing trillion dollar deficits.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, crafty Reid feared political repercussions if Democratic Senators had to vote on anything unpopular just before the 2010 and 2012 elections.

This allowed President Obama to rule by executive order, presidential proclamations and memorandums to those inside government — his executive agencies, which are now grinding out regulations to implement his grand scheme to fundamentally transform America. With the legislative process on hold, the president took over.

So the spending “continued” with continuing resolutions. This is precisely why Republican reform legislation never saw the light of day in the Senate. Reid simply couldn’t risk debate on the floor or in conference committee where a compromise bill might be drafted to go to Obama for signature. This process would have been reported by the media. (Even Obama’s proposed 2013 budget was rejected by this Democratic-controlled Senate by a 99-0 vote.)

But Reid knew this political ploy couldn’t go on forever. Besides, Obama was now safely re-elected.

Political culture is rapidly changing. With Reid in mind, and to paraphrase Will Rogers, people are now taking their comedians seriously and their politicians as a joke. Comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are widely viewed as political pundits. “Saturday Night Live” comedian Al Franken was elected senator in Minnesota.

I guess one could say that Reid and the Senate majority treated the budget process as a joke.

John Reiniers, a regular columnist for Hernando Today, lives in Spring Hill.

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