The Budget Process and the "Death of Deliberative Democracy"
I have now read most of the report on "The Death of Deliberative Democracy" in the House of Representatives, put out by Rep. Louise Slaughter, and it's very nicely done. It spends a lot of time on the more familiar anti-democratic practices in the House -- the practice of bringing bills to the floor under closed rules that allow few amendments, the abuse of the conference process, but it also brings up issues that I had never heard mentioned, the most interesting being the fact that they now use all of Wednesday for bills on the "Suspension Calendar" -- noncontroversial items such as naming courthouses -- leaving only one day of the week for actual legislative debate.
But there is one aspect of the death of deliberative democracy that the report does not touch on -- partly because it's less of a concern in the House than in the Senate -- and that is the abuse of the budget process. Consider what happened this week, almost unnoticed in the midst of the bankruptcy bill, the Bolton nomination, the slow death of the Social Security phase-out: the House and Senate budget committees each produced the first versions of the Budget Resolution, the document that starts the process. The budget resolution doesn't go to the president; it doesn't have the force of law. If you read it, the bill itself is just a set of numbers, in numbered categories known as "budget functions" that don't quite correspond with cabinet departments or congressional committees, followed by "Reconciliation Instructions" to various committees.
This is a good example of a situation where Reading the Bill provides no information at all. The instructions to the committees, under the heading "SUBMISSIONS TO SLOW THE GROWTH IN MANDATORY SPENDING AND TO ACHIEVE DEFICIT REDUCTION," read like this one:
EXPIRING TAX RELIEF.?The House Committee on Ways and Means shall report a reconciliation bill not later than 14 June 24, 2005, that consists of changes in laws within its jurisdiction sufficient to reduce revenues by not more than $____for fiscal year 2006 and by not more than $____ for the period of fiscal years 2006 through 2010.
The italics are mine, and the numbers are blank in the version on the committee's web site. Presumably they were handwritten in the morning of the markup. The second number, I believe, is $45 billion.
It's really important to understand how this mechanism works: Sometime as late as the night before the markup, someone writes a number into that second blank space. The budget committee then passes the resolution on a party-line vote, in the course of a few hours, tossing around numbers in the hundreds of billions almost as casually as I wrote about total revenues as a percent of GDP earlier today. The resolution then goes to the House, where no amendments will be allowed. The Senate follows its own, similar, process, and while amendments to the resolution are allowed, the time is strictly limited and most will be voted down on party line votes. The resolution will then go to a House-Senate conference and the conference report will then return to the House and Senate, with no opportunity for amendment. (In at least one recent year, the House and Senate couldn't agree on a conference report, and pursued their separate plans.)
After that, it's up to the committees to comply with the "instructions" in the resolution. As indicated above, the Ways and Means Committee is ordered to cut taxes. They can debate all they want about how to do it, but they are ordered to do it. In other cases, the instructions create very specific requirements. In the Senate resolution, for example, the Energy committee is instructed to come up with a certain amount of revenues. Since that committee doesn't control taxes, there are very few ways they can do that. The one they have in mind is to sell oil leases in Alaska, thus putting the issue of drilling in ANWR onto the protected budget resolution.
After the committees comply with these instructions, the bills they pass are packaged back together into a "reconciliation" bill, which again goes through the House and Senate under restrictive rules, goes to conference -- where altogether new elements may be added -- and returns for final passage.
Now, where in that process is there an opportunity for real debate and bipartisan participation? Nowhere. A decision is made the night before the Budget Committee markup about what number to write into one of those open slots. From there, a series of "we have no choices" choices are generated, that might lead to further tax cuts or to opening ANWR. Only a significant number of Republicans declaring that they will vote against the whole thing can derail this process.
It's possible to understand this process as a way of reducing deficits, which was the procedure's original intent. As it did in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton eras, it forces Congress to make choices in the aggregate that it does not want to make in the particular. But used as a procedure to cut taxes and increase deficits, and to push through other unrelated policies such as ANWR, it is simply an outrageous assault on democracy.
Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 12, 2005 | Permalink
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That's worse than I knew. Is there a way to publicize and popularize this?
Posted by: Abby Vigneron | Mar 12, 2005 3:42:14 PM
Useful excerpts and highlights are at Needlenose, Matt Yglesias on open rules and inhumanly short time to read bills, and TAPPED.
Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Mar 12, 2005 6:04:52 PM
It's possible to understand this process as a way of reducing deficits, which was the procedure's original intent. As it did in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton eras, it forces Congress to make choices in the aggregate that it does not want to make in the particular.
Mark, when did this process begin? Under Reagan? Who put it in place?
Another question, is Thursday the one day for debate, or Tuesday? I know many Reps are back in the district on Mondays and Fridays.
Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Mar 13, 2005 11:54:59 AM
Scratch a Republican, find a monarchist (and I know that's an etymological absurdity).
Quod rex vult, lex fit.
Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Mar 13, 2005 11:57:07 AM
That said, what can be done to improve the process?
Posted by: David | Mar 17, 2005 1:47:39 AM