Chairman Conrad’s Embarrassing Quasi-Budget

Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N. Dak., holds a news conference on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, to preview the Budget Committee’s budget resolution markup. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Budget Committee stretched a few definitions in announcing yesterday’s “Mark-Up of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2013.” Turns out it’s not really a budget resolution, per se, and there will be no formal committee action on it—no amendments, no vote, no real committee-adopted fiscal plan. Thus, April 29 will complete the third full year since the Senate last passed a budget resolution.

“I had considered presenting a budget that reflected the general consensus among the Democratic Members of the Committee,” explained Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D–ND), but “many plans have already been offered that lean right or lean left. Adding another to the stack would do little to move us closer to a bipartisan agreement that can actually be adopted.”

Except that—not to put too fine a point on it—that’s the Budget Committee Chairman’s job. A committee-approved resolution is not some random bill added to “the stack.” It is the base legislation against which other budgets are measured. Following committee action and lengthy floor debate, it becomes the formal resolution that the Senate takes into negotiations with the House—leading, in the end, to a full congressional budget that will guide all other spending and tax decisions. Conrad’s dismissive approach further denigrates the practice of congressional budgeting and mocks the institution of the Budget Committee itself. It is a discouraging final act for the retiring chairman of a committee that might as well be disbanded.

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As a quasi-budget, Senator Conrad is presenting the Bowles–Simpson fiscal commission plan, which he hopes “we can build upon” for long-term deficit reduction. This is the plan that failed to pass the commission, was ignored by the President, and was resoundingly defeated in the House at the end of March (though it got 38 more votes than the President’s unanimously rejected budget). Good luck with that, Mr. Chairman.

Conrad and other committee Democrats still trot out the myth—recently discredited by the Senate’s own parliamentarian—that the Budget Control Act (BCA) effectively constitutes a budget resolution for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. They even cite language saying that the BCA, the product of last year’s debt ceiling debate, would serve “in the same manner as for a concurrent resolution on the budget.” They ignore additional BCA language saying its budget-like provisions “shall expire if a concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2013 is agreed to”—anticipating that Congress would actually return to its budgeting duties.

The BCA was never more than a poor substitute for a budget resolution—a hastily patched-together, last-minute measure aimed at dodging a phony “default” crisis. The BCA’s cap on discretionary budget authority covers only about one-third of total spending and is punctured with deliberate loopholes that make the limit all but meaningless. Beyond that, the BCA offers no budgeting priorities—as a budget resolution does—no entitlement reforms, and no direction for major spending and tax policies.

Chairman Conrad and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D–NV) might take a look at a real budget, such as the one recently passed by the House. Alternatively, they could sample that “stack” building up in the Senate, including resolutions by Senators Rand Paul (R–KY) and Pat Toomey (R–PA). These lawmakers, along with numerous House Members, are at least willing to offer their own ideas about how to address the nation’s looming spending and debt crisis, unlike the Senate leadership.

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After learning of Conrad’s plans yesterday, Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R–AL) called the moment a “national embarrassment” for the Senate. But like General Services Administration mega-parties and Secret Service dalliances, this is more than embarrassing; it is an abdication of one of the Senate’s most fundamental responsibilities—at a time when the country can least afford it.

Source material can be found at this site.

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