The year that promised a return to regular order is getting off to a highly irregular start.
Like a mantra, GOP leaders have repeatedly declared 2016 would be different. Lawmaking for the history books isn’t much in the offing, they conceded, but at least the legislative machinery will once again work as designed – in setting the budget, most of all. The leadership’s practical view has been the rank-and-file from both parties, and the institution of Congress itself, require that much respect now for there to be a chance real collaboration and comity would return sometime in the future.
The sincerity of this commitment has become highly suspect, however, now that top Republicans have scrapped the very first piece of the budgetary process under their control.
President Barack Obama is unveiling his final proposal on Tuesday, admittedly a week behind schedule. But Congress isn’t even going to give it so much as a hearing.
For four decades, top administration officials have been invited before the two congressional Budget committees a day after the spending plan is delivered. Three quarters of those years have been periods of divided government, but no matter the political dynamic, the concept has remained the same: The White House and its allies should be afforded at least one televised opportunity for showcasing presidential priorities, and the critics should get similar time to bash the budget or dismiss it as “dead on arrival.”
But not on Wednesday. The Republican chairmen of both panels, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, have scrapped the traditional testimonies this year – dismissing the Democratic president’s blueprint (even before glancing at it) as so unserious as to be unworthy of a couple of hours of anybody’s time.
“Rather than spend time on a proposal that, if anything like this administration’s previous budgets, will double down on the same failed policies that have led to the worst economic recovery in modern times, Congress should continue our work on building a budget that balances and that will foster a healthy economy,” said Price, who’s been around long enough to understand his party’s ideas about eliminating red ink are just as much political non-starters in an election year as the big ideas Obama is rolling out one last time.
“Instead of hearing from an administration unconcerned with our $19 trillion in debt, we should focus on how to reform America’s broken budget process and restore the trust of hardworking taxpayers,” said Enzi, who understands fiscal policy well enough to know the debt is entirely a consequence of decisions made in years past, and understands politics well enough to know voter distrust has deep roots in partisanship and gridlock.
The decision comes just two weeks after the same chairmen called off another marquee fiscal policy moment -- albeit for reasons beyond their control. The massive snowstorm prevented lawmakers from hearing the top congressional budget scorekeeper describe his rapidly worsening deficit and debt projections in the absence of dramatic policy changes.
To be honest, the Hill sessions the day after the budget comes out (which normally feature the Office of Management and Budget director) are generally set pieces where the rhetoric is predictable and little news gets made. But the same can be said of many of the hearings conducted at the Capitol. But both sides, all the way back to 1975, have nonetheless seen value in holding an event the day after the avalanche of budgetary paper arrives in order to give the president’s friends and foes at least one official venue for synthesizing their say.
Having the committees do more of the sort of work the civics textbooks describe also features prominently whenever the GOP leadership is asked what a return to “regular order” means.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose power center was once the Appropriations Committee, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a former House Budget chairman, have spoken emphatically about making the fiscal system work as it’s supposed to in 2016. That starts with adoption of a joint congressional budget resolution by spring, which at a minimum is supposed to commit Congress to a grand total for discretionary spending.
Since that $1.1 trillion “top line” for fiscal 2017 was enshrined in law last fall as part of the bipartisan budget agreement (with 51 percent of funding promised to national security) there’s theoretically the best chance in many years for the rest of the process to play out as designed: Two dozen different spending bills drafted by the Appropriations panels, amended and passed by the House and Senate after open debate, then compromised by conference committees into 12 distinct measures – maybe even before the new fiscal year opens in October.
Plenty of obstacles to that regular order are already coming in to view, mainly pushed by combative GOP conservatives still not tired of fighting the last war. Many in the House Freedom Caucus want to stall the budget unless they can re-litigate the spending total, while many senators talk of derailing any spending bills unless they’re festooned with old-favorite, veto-bait policy riders.
Telling OMB Director Shaun Donovan his presence isn’t needed for a pretty harmless political ritual, furthermore, gives Obama a defensible rationale for blaming any future impasse entirely on the other side’s intransigence. (“Maybe they are taking the Donald Trump approach to debates about the budget,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday after the Price and Enzi announcement. “They are just not going to show up.”)
Hill Democrats will also have Ryan’s own words as evidence the GOP is being self-defeating and hypocritical.
“The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation,” he said in his inaugural speech as speaker in October. “Open up the process, let people participate, and they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith.”
Contact Hawkings at DavidHawkings@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @davidhawkings.
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