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No Budget in 1,000 Days? No Budget Ever!

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Around the time of President Obama’s state of the union speech two weeks ago, Republicans and their allies came out arguing that the Democratic Senate hadn’t produced a budget in 1,000 days. Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) disputes the charge.

Is it true? The new budget season starts today, so it’s a great time to examine that question.

Budget season really does start today. The Congressional Budget Act has a timetable in it (at section 300) that says the president submits his budget on or before the first Monday in February. Today it is!

But don’t hold your breath waiting to get a glimpse of the president’s budget. The White House has kicked back its release by a week—an unfortunate symbol of how both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue flout budget processes in ways large and small.

Now to the question: When was the last Senate budget?

Let’s start with a preliminary question: What is a “budget”?

The Congressional Budget Act defines it with reference to the document it appears in, known as a “concurrent budget resolution.” That definition is gobbledegook:

On or before April 15 of each year, the Congress shall complete action on a concurrent resolution of the budget for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year. The concurrent resolution shall set forth appropriate levels for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year and for at least each of the 4 ensuing fiscal years for the following—
(1) totals of new budget authority and outlays;
(2) total Federal revenues and the amount, if any, by which the aggregate level of Federal revenues should be increased or decreased by bills and resolutions to be reported by the appropriate committees;
(3) the surplus or deficit in the budget;
(4) new budget authority and outlays for each major functional category, based on allocations of the total levels set forth pursuant to paragraph (1);
(5) the public debt;
(6) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, outlays of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act for the fiscal year of the resolution
and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years; and
(7) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, revenues of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act (and the related provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) for the fiscal year of the resolution and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years.

Take a look at the last budget the Senate passed, though, and you can see these things—not that it’s a clear, readable description of what the future holds for government activity.

Now, Senator Conrad objects to the charge that he hasn’t produced a budget, saying that the Budget Control Act, which passed just last August, is a budget. It’s “more extensive,” setting the budget for the current year and the next one; it’s not just a resolution, but a law; and it has caps on discretionary spending going forward ten years.

Looking at the text of the bill, a government-budget novice like myself can’t see this. It doesn’t look like other congressional budgets, and it doesn’t fit with the definition in the Congressional Budget Act.

But why do we have to accept the government’s definition of what a budget is? It’s our government, and we get to decide when we’re seeing a budget.

I went to a handy resource, called a “dictionary,” to look up the word “budget.” The first two definitions are helpful:

1. an estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future.
2. a plan of operations based on such an estimate.

Now we have something we can use! And it can help us sort out what’s going on in federal ‘budgeting.’

The president’s budget (I like the historical tables) lays out not only gross spending numbers but the agencies and bureaus where the money will be spent. It’s a budget, under the more extensive, second definition.

What the House and Senate do, when they do their “budgeting,” is put out gross numbers and then some detail based on functional categories like amounts to be spent on “national defense” and “community and regional development” and stuff. That … almost meets the first definition, but it certainly isn’t itemized. Congress doesn’t actually do budgets.

My conclusion—as a human being and not a budget wonk—is that the Senate has not produced a budget in more than 1,000 days. I also conclude that the Congress doesn’t really produce budgets ever.

Congress is owned by the complexity of the federal government, and it is incapable of budgeting in a meaningful way. If the political charge sticks—that the Senate has failed to budget—so be it. But the problem goes deeper. Congress basically doesn’t budget. It just spends money in the appropriations process—which it flouts just as often as so-called “budgeting.”

Looking at Their Legislative Records (Iowa)

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

A somewhat comical post on a forum called “Above Top Secret” points out that Ron Paul has passed only one bill in Congress. The implication is that he isn’t an adept legislator, so he wouldn’t be a good president. He’s one of several vying for the Republican nomination for president of the United States in this year’s election, and today the Iowa caucuses kick off the process of choosing the Republican nominee.

(Happy 2012, by the way. There’s an election this year…)

The reason why that’s a comical post is that Ron Paul is known as “Dr. No” in Congress. He’s against everything. That’s part of his appeal to his supporters. They want a lot less of everything, which is not an illegitimate approach given the budget deficit, for example.

Paul’s legislative triumph was Public Law 111-76, which provided for the transfer of federal property to the Galveston Historical Foundation. Big whoop.

Only the most simplistic analysis counts the number of bills a legislator or a Congress passes and uses that to determine whether the legislator or the Congress is any good. The ideal number of bills might be zero, for goodness sake.

It’s not just obscure chat forums using that measure, though. Here’s NPR using bill counts as a proxy for congressional success, for example.

Congress has passed few bills this year, but you can’t say Congress is good or bad for that. You can say it’s bad for failing to budget and pass the annual spending bills on time, for passing short-term bills that deny the public the ability to plan, and for many other reasons. We do a lot of carping here about that stuff.

But let’s go with that proxy for legislative goodness, because Ron Paul isn’t the only federal legislator vying in Iowa for the Republican nomination. There’s also Michelle Bachman. And she has passed … zero laws during her service in Congress.

She has a few non-binding resolutions that she has gotten through. In the last Congress, Bachman passed H. Res. 373, expressing the House’s support for designation of the month of September as “National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month.”

In the 110th Congress, she passed two other non-binding resolutions: H. Res. 789, honoring public child welfare agencies, nonprofit organizations and private entities providing services for foster children, and H. Res. 923, recognizing the State of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary.

(Sorry, no links. We didn’t cover these non-binding, largely ceremonial bills back then. We do now, not because they’re important but because you should get to see how your members of Congress spend their time.)

Rick Santorum has actually passed some bills! Does that make him the “best” candidate? He passed three laws in the 109th Congress:

  • Public Law 109-156, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Improvement Act
  • Public Law 109-242, the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006; and
  • Public Law 109-416, the Combating Autism Act of 2006.

And two in the 108th:

  • Public Law 108-105, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003; and
  • Public Law 108-273, to designate the United States courthouse and post office building located at 93 Atocha Street in Ponce, Puerto Rico, as the “Luis A. Ferre United States Courthouse and Post Office Building.

In the 107th Congress:



  • Public Law 106-290, to expand the boundaries of the Gettysburg National Military Park to include Wills House; and
  • Public Law 106-535, to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 431 George Street in Millersville, Pennsylvania, as the “Robert S. Walker Post Office.”



And his first Congress of service, the 104th:


There are other candidates, or course. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and John Huntsman all served as governors, of Texas, Massachusetts, and Utah, respectively. There’s Gary Johnson, of course, the candidate Republicans won’t let you see. He was governor of New Mexico.

So there you have it: top federal legislator Rick Santorum. He’s our pick for: person who passed more bills than the others.

Congratulations Senator Santorum! On this basis, you should be swept into the presidency!

During his time in the Senate, President Obama only passed the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006.

Being Presidential

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

A couple of interesting things have happened over the last few weeks that offer an insight into professional politics. It’s all about the spin, baby.

First, consider this: It is pretty much optional for a president to get involved in a weather event like Hurricane Irene. Oh, maybe there’s some political risk to not being out front, but if Hurricane Katrina is any lesson, it’s that getting out front can be a liability. Nobody thinks, “Good job, Bushy” when they recall the president at the time saying, “Good job, Brownie.”

Why do you suppose President Obama made such a point of involving himself and federal resources in battling a weather event that was well handled by states, localities, and people? Because it gave him a chance to be presidential. In a way that he wanted.

Hurricane Irene allowed everyone in the political-watching classes to take a day or two off from the economy and joblessness. President Obama got to reinforce his image as the president-not-presiding-over-a-continuing-bad-economy. And he made the most of it.

The economy is not going away, of course, and President Obama has planned for some time to address the economy in September. An interesting thing happened on the way to the speech, though. He doesn’t seem to have checked with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives before scheduling his speech in the House chamber for tomorrow, September 7th.

Speaker Boehner said, “Mmmmm, no. Why don’t you come back on Thursday, a night on which there isn’t a Republican presidential debate.” Shorter version: “It’s MY House!”

Political watchers take that as either a notable gaffe on the part of the president and his team, or a notable thumbing-of-the-nose on the part of the House Speaker.

You don’t have to agree with the way we’ve told the story here. Doesn’t matter. All of this goes to the kabuki dance that dominates so much of politics. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s getting the best table at the fancy steak house?

When questions like that filter out to the public, it can make the difference. If people generally feel good about a president, he can command a lot more attention, he can move votes in the House and Senate, he can raise more funds. If he doesn’t look all that good, nothing goes as easily.

It’s interesting to watch the politics. We put more emphasis here on the policy. What actually gets into bills and into law matters more. But when that’s not available—and it is really hard, despite us, to follow what goes on—politics is good entertainment.

Legislators Earn Three Times More Than Average Americans

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Unbelievable. With Congress failing to reach a deal that raises the debt ceiling and brings federal spending under control, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance reported this past week that members of Congress receive pay and benefits far in excess of what average working Americans receive.

Along with their $174,000 per year salary, members of Congress also receive generous fringe benefits that brings total compensation to around $285,000 per year. With the average full-time employee in the United States earning $50,875 annually, Members of Congress make 3.4 times more than the average American. Only one country—Japan—pays legislators such high salaries relative to the earnings of the people.

How do salaries get so high?

Well, in the United States, at least, they get so high because the people have failed to oversee the government. Over decades, a large and opaque government has concealed its workings from the people. Maintaining a government that is well-run and responsive to the people has fallen off the priority list. Wealthy, entitled politicians do a singularly bad job of managing the sprawling government they’ve built, and they reward themselves handsomely for the job they do.

There are no quick fixes, and there’s no use in getting mad about it. The people that are going to bring this problem under control are playing the long game. That means learning about government and politics. It means devoting a little time each week to following what is going on. It means organizing with others and contacting representatives regularly with informed opinions.

Here at WashingtonWatch.com, you may notice that we don’t really focus on the day-to-day in budget battles that have been playing out in recent weeks. If you’ve arrived at your interest in public policy just in time to watch a disaster like the debt ceiling debate going on in Washington now, you’ve already lost. There’s nothing you can do about it but scream and cry. And that’s not doing anything about it.

We’ve tried to create some tools to help players of the long game win. We have a free weekly newsletter that highlights what’s going on in Congress every week. We report regularly on the annual spending bills that are moving through Congress right now (see here, here, and here). Communications with your representatives about these bills and what you think of them might change a vote. If your representative isn’t good at responding to your comments and questions, then you know you’re not being served well. You can communicate this to your friends and neighbors, and you can support a different candidate in the next election.

It’s hard to do a good job of even these things, given the lack of good information available. That’s why we started a petition seeking a transparent and orderly Congress. Such a thing will make it easier for the American people to follow along. With a little over 140 signers at this point, that’s not enough interest to start a movement. Nobody except your humble webmaster has commented on the petition. So it awaits the day when 1,000—or 10,000 people—have called for a well-run Congress.

If the subject of this blog post interests you, the petition to prevent Congress getting automatic pay raises has just 35 signers at this point. Maybe the American people don’t care. When 1,000 or more people have signed that one, a campaign to actually do something in this area may actually be worth doing.

For all the anger in the country, we don’t see a lot of the work being done to actually change things. Congress has got your attention. Congress has got you angry. But Congress hasn’t got you committed to playing the long game, the game that will actually change things. And that’s just where they want you to be.

Cut, Cap and Balance

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

When the Senate version of the bill was introduced, we made a little fun: “It also juliennes carrots,” we said of the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act of 2011. (Yuk yuk.)

But the bill (House version: H.R. 2560) takes center stage this coming week as the House will use it for a major statement in the ongoing budget debate.

The debate is occurring because the federal government is close to maxing out its credit card. Federal law limits the amount of debt the government may carry, currently to $14.294 trillion. (That’s about $46,000 per person, or $144,000 per U.S. family.)

If the debt limit statute is going to be changed, the bill to do it has to go through the House of Representatives, which is in Republican hands. Republicans, especially those with Tea Party backing, want to control the debt.

So the Republican House plans only to let an increase in the debt limit go through if some real spending cuts happen at the same time. And they want the cuts to hold, so they’re talking about a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

Here (and in the video) are how the Republican Study Committee argues for its proposal to get the federal government’s indebtedness under control:

One-time spending cuts will not be enough to avert the coming crisis. Neither will toothless promises of cuts 10 years from now. Only permanent changes will do. The answer is spending cuts now, enforceable spending caps, and Congressional passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution – Cut, Cap, and Balance.

Is that the right approach?

Generally, Democrats and President Obama feel that the national debt is not as serious a concern as Republicans do. They don’t think that the government’s arrival at its debt limit is an appropriate reason to have this debate. Republicans are holding the government’s good credit hostage to try to get their way.

If the government does reach the limit and starts to default on its debt—refusing to pay out on government notes—the government’s borrowing costs will rise dramatically. This will affect interest rates overall, and it will have unknown, but certainly bad, effects on the economy. The last thing the economy needs is another shot to the gut. The Cut, Cap and Balance approach will go nowhere, so it’s just political posturing.

This is a good, strong debate. We wrote before about your role in it. So? Take part!

Should Government Contractors Have to Reveal Political Contributions?

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

H.R. 2008 says No. It would prohibit “inserting politics into the Federal acquisition process” by prohibiting the submission of political contribution information as a condition of receiving a Federal contract.

Birth Certificate: Democrats’ Master Stroke

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Politics is an odd business, and there’s nothing like the birth certificate controversy to prove that. News that President Obama has released his “long-form” birth certificate seems like an important concession on the part of the president, a win for “birthers” and skeptics of his constitutional qualification for office. But the president and his advisers may have just made lemonade from the lemons this issue has offered them.

First, the controversy as it has stood: 1) There has been no chance that the birth certificate controversy would unseat the president as a legal matter. No chance the Supreme Court would go there. 2) The issue has had only a little relevance to the president’s electoral prospects—nobody who voted for the president will change to a “no” in the next election because of the birth certificate issue—but it has kept opponents of the president energized. 3) It would be better to have this issue go away, but not at the cost of demeaning the president—and the presidency—with a show of birth records to the rabble. (And it is demeaning to the presidency to acknowledge this controversy. It has racial overtones that, hmmm, for lack of better words: racial overtones that suck.)

Now to the present day: The president found a solution that will make the issue go away. The name of the solution is Donald Trump.

Trump is the new Ross Perot. A fascinating experimental candidacy (fascinating mostly to himself, of course). Trump is a media darling because there’s nothing else to do. But he’s totally unelectable. Repeat: Totally. Unelectable. Super-bonus-repeat: Toe. Tuh. Lee. Un. Eee. Leck. Tuh. Bull.

What is Trump in the hard-nosed, political world? A distraction that makes Republicans look slightly buffoonish. “Sideshows and carnival barkers,” as President Obama himself said.

Trump is helping the president by falling for the president’s trap and crediting himself with the release of the birth certificate. The president has given Trump a longer life as Republicans’ buffoon candidate. Using Trump, the president has taken the small net negative offered by the birth certificate issue and turns it into a small, but relevant positive. While Republican party leaders look on, a little political jujitsu on the part of the president has turned Donald Trump into a an albatross around their necks for another few weeks, delaying the time Republicans can build the credibility of a serious candidate and contender (of which there are few).

When Trump’s star falls back to earth, the birth certificate issue will be gone, demoralizing some of President Obama’s fiercest and most dedicated opponents, and mainstream party Republicans will have been dealt a setback as well. Not a bad political play.

Shutdown Politics

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Yet another government shutdown looms. At the end of the week, the current “continuing resolution” will run out. The government can’t run without Congress’ authorization to spend money, so House Republicans are negotiating with Senate Democrats and the president about what comes next.

In 1995, Republicans took most of the political blame when there was a shutdown, so the consensus is that they would take the blame if it happened again. But many in the new class of House Republicans are Tea Partiers committed to controlling spending and the deficit. They put House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a bind because he can’t compromise too far with Democrats or he’ll lose Tea Party votes and make Republicans look uncommitted to their fiscal principles.

In an effort to protect themselves politically, on Friday House Republicans passed a bill called “The Government Shutdown Prevention Act of 2011.” The bill would deem H.R. 1, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011, to be passed if the Senate doesn’t pass spending legislation for the rest of the fiscal year by Wednesday, April 6th. Now, H.R. 1255 doesn’t have any effect without the Senate passing it and the president signing it, so its real purpose is to point out that the House has passed bills to fund the government—twice, now—and the Senate hasn’t passed any. Who knows if that message will work.

2011 Budget BattleCurrently, there appears to be a deal in the works to cut another $33 billion from current spending levels. That’s down from the $61 billion that was under discussion earlier. House budget hawks might not go for this smaller cut.

One recently released poll says that most Americans would be OK with a government shutdown if it meant a bigger cut in spending. Will that cause Republicans to take a stronger line? That’s another one that remains to be seen.

The Washington Post‘s PostPolitics blog has a pretty good piece on government shutdowns . . . except for some really bad word choices in this line:

The White House and congressional leaders are working on a deal that would slash about $33 billion from the federal budget, including $10 billion already cut by two other short-term measures, amounting to the largest reductions in U.S. history.

“Slash”? Really? Largest reduction in U.S. history?

This cut would be less than 1% of the budget, and there have been many cuts of greater than 1% in the past. A chart produced by the Cato Institute this week puts some of these numbers in perspective (disclosure: Cato is where I work by day).

We’ve been down this road before. See our earlier posts, “GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN! Delayed…” and “Shutdown! — Once Again Averted.” It’s going to be another white-knuckled week! Sort of . . .

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 1255, the Government Shutdown Prevention Act of 2011. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.

Post-Election Spending Politics

Friday, November 5th, 2010

knifeCongressional Republicans are up in arms at news that the Senate might pass on “omnibus” spending bill—an all-in-one bill that makes government-wide spending decisions—during the lame duck session. (That’s the period after the election but before the new Congress takes office.)

“I will strongly encourage every Republican Member of the Committee, my leadership, and the entire Republican Conference to oppose such legislation,” says Republican Appropriations Committee leader Jerry Lewis, according to an article on NationalJournal.com.

There’s a good argument that the current House and Senate gave up their right to make spending decisions for the 2011 fiscal year when they failed to pass a budget or spending bills by the September 30 end of the 2010 fiscal year. Republicans, including new members associated with the Tea Party movement, might like to show some results in 2011 spending.

(The National Journal article cited above uses some noteworthy language: “Many House Republicans want to start slashing immediately.” Those loaded words—“slashing” instead of “cutting” or “reducing spending”—signal that the author of the article, reporter Humberto Sanchez, doesn’t believe there can be responsible spending reductions. He should probably take a more neutral tone.)

The government is currently running on a “continuing resolution”—a temporary spending measure—that expires on December 3rd.

Get Your Voting Info Here!

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

There’s a difference between politics and policy. Policy is about what bills are in Congress and what they mean. Politics is the about which people you think should represent your policy views. We mostly stick to policy here. We try to help you know more about policy, so perhaps you can do a little bit more about it. But that doesn’t excuse you from engaging just a little bit with politics. You should vote.

When you vote, you affect in a small way what direction policy is going to go—what direction your life and country are going to go. Even when you vote in an election that has already been “called” for one candidate or another, that makes a difference, because political professionals pay attention to margins of victory, not just the simple outcomes.

So vote! There’s an election on Tuesday. Make sure you get there.

The Google gadget below will make that easier. Just enter your address and click “Search” to get voting information for your area. Once you’ve got what you need, send this page to your friends and neighbors. And be sure, on Tuesday, to VOTE!