How to break the budget process

Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D) and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R)
Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D) and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R)
Associated Press

For about three years, congressional Republicans had a talking point they were quite fond of: they wanted Congress to pass a budget through “regular order,” but Senate Democrats have made that impossible by failing to pass a budget. In an interesting twist, GOP lawmakers have abandoned their own talking points – and Democrats have picked them up.

I realize talking about the federal budget seems a little dry and wonky, but stick with me; it gets interesting.

First, let’s back up and explain what “regular order” is. The budget process is supposed to follow a certain trajectory: the House approves its budget blueprint, then the Senate does the same, and a conference committee featuring members from both chambers get together to work out the differences. There are no secret deals, no shutdowns, and no stopgap measures – just good ol’ fashioned policymaking through a process that’s been in place for many decades.

And it’s this “regular order” that Republicans insisted they liked. It was a perfectly defensible position so long as GOP leaders assumed Senate Democrats wouldn’t actually pass a budget, but then a funny thing happened: Senate Democrats actually passed a budget and said they too wanted regular order.

At which point Republicans dropped their talking points and said they now want the exact opposite. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has, on multiple occasions, tried to appoint Senate members to the budget conference committee – just as Republicans said they wanted – only to find the Senate GOP blocking his efforts. House GOP leaders won’t agree to appoint conference members at all.

It’s quickly becoming farcical.

House and Senate negotiators have reached an impasse over how to move forward on their respective budget proposals – making any chance of a compromise budget deal to slash the deficit less likely.

The prospects that Budget Committee Chairs Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could reach a deal to hold a budget conference committee are dimming as each side is pushing for different things before a conference can even begin.

“Different things” is a curious phrase for Politico to use. What Republicans are now seeking is some kind of pre-negotiations negotiations in which Democrats accept parameters of budget talks before there are actual budget talks.

In effect, Paul Ryan and his allies are telling Dems, “Accept the terms of our talks beforehand, or we won’t talk at all.”

Again, keep in mind what Republicans said was their top priority: an open and transparent budget process through regular order, without special deals negotiated in secret. Republicans are instead now saying they want a closed budget process that abandons regular order, and which is reliant solely on deals negotiated in secret.

The ridicule from New York Times’ editorial board is well justified.

A few days ago, when Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, tried to appoint members of a conference committee, Republicans refused to allow it, saying it would cause “complications for the House.” As Senator Jeff Sessions, the leading Republican on the Budget Committee, explained it, “We haven’t been able to have any understanding on how this conference might work.”

In fact, Republicans know exactly how it would work: they would have to compromise. The Senate would have to agree to some of the House’s spending cuts, and the House would have to agree to some of the Senate’s spending increases and the tax increases on the rich to pay for them. As the country has learned in recent years, House Republicans are incapable of compromise on those issues.

Being intransigent in a formal budget conference, however, would put Republicans in a bind. The public would be able to see that Democrats were offering billions in spending cuts while Republicans were offering nothing. And if a conference did not produce an agreement in 20 days, members could offer “motions to instruct” the committee that required debate and a vote, which the speaker could not use his usual powers to stop. That, too, could cause embarrassment for the Republican leadership, as Democrats and Tea Party members offered a series of motions that would demonstrate how incoherent the Republican agenda truly was.

All of this was based on an assumption: Senate Dems wouldn’t get their act together and pass a budget. There was, apparently, no Plan B – Republicans simply never considered what they might do if the Senate completed this task.

It was, in other words, an awkward bluff, which Reid and Patty Murray were eager to call.

Looking ahead, the prospects are poor. With their 180-degree turn complete, Republicans now want a budget “framework,” negotiated secretly in back rooms, and intend to blame Democrats if they balk. Democrats want what Republicans used to want – regular order.

It’s reached the point at which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is mocking Boehner and GOP leaders in YouTube videos.

Patty Murray, Paul Ryan and Budget

How to break the budget process