January 18, 2013

The House Republicans folded today on their “principle” that any extension of the debt limit can only come with a same-sized spending cut. It’s interesting that what they chose for cover, however, was a demand that … the Senate pass a budget. It’s time to think a bit about this particular GOP obsession.

 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Budget resolutions are non-binding pledges from Congress to themselves about what they intend to do about spending and taxes in the current year. They are not laws. Nor are they necessary, although they are called for by law. The main utility of budget resolutions, if they pass both houses of Congress and take effect, is that they set the terms for “reconciliation” bills which exist (theoretically) in order to enact the permanent law changes called for by the resolution, and are valuable because they allow the majority to avoid minority obstruction in the Senate.

The thing is: Because they are not binding or law, it turns out that there’s no particular advantage to anyone to pass one in cases of divided government. With divided government, there are basically two ways to do budgeting: piecemeal, with separate fights over appropriations bills and any tax or entitlement bills; or all at once, with a big summit-drafted agreement that everyone can live with. In neither case does it help for the House and Senate to agree on a budget resolution and stage votes on it. If they could do that, then they might as well jump straight to the final vote on everything. After all, anything that earns the support (in the current situation) from Speaker John Boehner and President Obama is going to be able to find 60 votes in the Senate, and so there’s no need for the reconciliation procedure that the budget resolution makes possible.

To put it one way: that the Senate didn’t pass a budget resolution in 2011 didn’t matter to actual budgeting — at all — because it did pass the Budget Control Act, an actual law which specified all the things that would have gone into a non-binding budget resolution.

That said … the Republican demand that the Senate pass a budget resolution should be seen as more or less exactly equivalent to the Democratic demand that House Republicans publicly specify the spending cuts they want as part of any budget deal. By avoiding bringing a budget resolution to the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t impeding budgeting, but he is allowing senators to avoid taking a tough vote. That is: House Republicans don’t want to make a public bid on spending cuts because they assume a deal will only include some of those cuts and then Democrats can bash them for the rest; Senate Democrats don’t want to pass a budget resolution because whatever is in it could be held against them, and it wouldn’t ultimately be going into effect without negotiations.

On the other hand, there is one major difference: the Senate Democrats may have ducked passing a budget resolution, but Democrats in general have not, since the White House must submit a budget every year.

At any rate, making a symbolic demand — that the Senate Democrats take a meaningless vote for a budget resolution — in exchange for the debt limit extension may be silly, but it’s not horribly unreasonable. Nor is it all that difficult a condition to meet. After all, the Senate Democrats could always fill their budget resolution up with vague and/or phony numbers, which is what House Republicans have been doing for the last couple of years.

Oh, and they could all actually put the talking points aside and try to actually negotiate a real deal that everyone can live with, at least for this year. Which has exactly nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the Senate passes a budget resolution.