Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 31, 2011

Congress clocks in to clock out

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

At 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Senate came to order. Forty-one seconds later, it adjourned.

During this legislative session, there was no bill under consideration, no debate on the floor, not even an opening prayer or a pledge of allegiance. The only senator in the chamber was Mark Warner (D-Va.), the presiding officer.

After completing his gavel duties, Warner looked up at the 20 tourists in the public gallery and wondered aloud to the clerk what the spectators must think of the proceedings.

“They think, ‘this is our government?’ ” the clerk replied.

That’s if they’re being charitable.

The Senate is supposed to be in Memorial Day recess this week. But the chamber is so ungovernable that Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t even have the votes to declare a recess. So he decided instead to have a few “pro forma” sessions, such as Tuesday’s, allowing senators to take a vacation without voting for it.

In a sense, the Senate has been in a pro-forma session all year. Beyond a few ho-hum pieces of legislation — patent reform! FAA reauthorization! — senators could have taken a five-month holiday and the republic would be none the worse. Although there’s general agreement that the most pressing issue facing the federal government is its runaway finances, the Democrat-controlled Senate hasn’t passed a budget in 762 days, a new standard for dereliction of duty.

“They put forward as many budgets today as they did all year,” Don Stewart, an aide to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, quipped after Tuesday’s under-a-minute session.

Since passage of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, Congress has failed to pass a budget resolution only five times, and until last year, a budget resolution always passed at least one chamber.

Now, for the first time in a decade, the Senate Budget Committee isn’t even considering a budget. Two weeks ago, Chairman Kent Conrad said he would “defer” action on the budget, which was due April 15, to see what comes of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden.

In recent days, the process has taken on a new absurdity. Democrats brought up the budget passed by House Republicans for the sole purpose of voting it down. Senate Republicans retaliated by forcing a vote on President Obama’s budget — and it was defeated, 97 to 0. (The House, refusing to cede all irrationality to the Senate, held a just-for-show vote to defeat a no-strings-attached increase in the debt limit.)

Both the Ryan and Obama budgets deserved their fates. President Obama’s wimpy plan made no serious effort to reform entitlements, which are the biggest piece of the long-term debt problem. Rep. Paul Ryan’s House GOP budget was irresponsible in a different way: In his zeal to cut taxes, Ryan broke the Medicare promise to future generations.

Senate Democrats had the chance to introduce a compromise budget along the lines proposed by the Bowles-Simpson debt commission and being negotiated by the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators, including Conrad. But when they saw how much political trouble Ryan’s Medicare plan was causing Republicans, Senate Democrats decided to spare themselves the similar injury that would come with a budget proposal that hiked taxes. “You don’t want to create a piñata,” a Senate Democratic aide explained. “The Ryan budget is being so good for Democrats. Why mess that up?”

So Democrats shelved their budget plans. The Gang of Six faded to irrelevance. And those familiar with the Biden talks say solutions to the long-term debt problem — serious entitlement reforms or tax increases — are unlikely to emerge.

It is just the sort of thing that offends Americans about Washington: The triumph of tactical advantage over the national interest. Democrats were understandably embarrassed about voting themselves a vacation so soon after abandoning their budget responsibilities. So when Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the top Republican on the budget committee, demanded a roll-call vote on the recess, Reid used the pro forma loophole.

Thus did Warner have to interrupt his Tuesday morning to tend to the business of the Senate. He wore a blue blazer and khakis, and strolled onto the floor a few minutes before 10 a.m. He talked with the clerks about their weekends and kids’ soccer games.

His official duties: reading three sentences, for a total of 31 words: 1. “The Senate will come to order.” 2. “The clerk will read a communication to the Senate.” 3. “Under the previous order, the Senate stands adjourned until 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 3, 2011.”

The clerk nodded at Warner, who tapped the gavel and slipped out the back. A maintenance worker locked the chamber, by then still and quiet. Only the debt clock continued to tick.

danamilbank@washpost.com