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Why Democrats voted for Josh Hawley's imaginary police hiring drive

It was a nonbinding amendment — but try telling that to a bunch of angry Democrats on Twitter.
Photo illustration: Josh Hawley against a line of police officers and a grid of small blue squares in the background.
Police officers hired? Zero. Attack ads made? Many.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Reuters; Getty

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is — to put it mildly — disliked. Yet in the early morning hours Wednesday, as the Senate debated a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, every U.S. senator but four voted for an amendment Hawley proposed that advocated putting 100,000 more police officers on the streets.

Earlier in the evening, all 99 senators present approved a similar amendment from Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., that would strip federal funding from local governments that “defund the police.”

For advocates and others who would very much like more police accountability, not spending more money to hire officers, this felt like a betrayal. How could the Democrats, who had talked such a big game about police reform, have rolled over so easily?

Well, the answer is simple: They didn’t. At least not substantively. The votes were part of the budget resolution process known in that all-too-cute Washington way as “vote-a-rama.” Senators spend hours introducing and voting upon amendments that, in short, do absolutely nothing.

You see, step one in the plan to get the bulk of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda through Congress was to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate. Step two was approving the budget resolution that will let Democrats invest in progressive priorities like mitigating climate change and extending the child tax credit expansion.

As part of the race to approve that resolution, and finally go on vacation, the Senate spent roughly 14 hours going through 47 amendments. A lot of those amendments involved creating “a deficit-neutral reserve fund,” which is a phrase no normal human has ever uttered.

So, what is a deficit-neutral reserve fund? To answer that, let’s start with a simple fact: U.S. senators love two things: No. 1, the rules of the Senate; No. 2, figuring out loopholes to the rules of the Senate.

Under the Senate’s rules, any amendment to a budget resolution has to deal with actual outlays or intakes of funds — that’s why the Senate parliamentarian vetoed raising the minimum wage via the Covid-19 relief bill debate earlier this year.

But the process that took place earlier this week was only the first half of a longer process. The resolution that was debated and eventually passed was basically the instruction manual for Senate committees on how to spend certain top-line amounts of money. As I explained previously, the committees then go and figure out actual legislation to flesh out that vague outline. Once that work is done, the committees’ efforts are put together into one giant spending bill that meets the guidelines the first resolution established.

The loophole comes when you realize that all the amendments the Senate went through are entirely nonbinding. Committees aren’t required to act on any of them. That goes double when you realize “a deficit-neutral reserve fund” is basically a work of fiction.

Dylan Matthews — now at Vox, then writing for The Washington Post — explained it like this in 2013:

As this CRS report explains, Section 310(d) of the Budget Act "bars the consideration of any amendment to a reconciliation bill that would increase the deficit." Hence the "deficit-neutral" part.

And what about "reserve fund"? According to CRS, "'Reserve fund' refers to any provision establishing procedures to revise spending or revenue levels, or both, if certain legislation is enacted or some other condition is met." So that specifies that the policies for which reserve funds are established won't take effect unless other legislation gets passed as well.

Translation: None of this matters. For Hawley's or Tuberville's amendment to come into effect, Congress would have to actually pass new laws in this upcoming fiscal year that involve hiring more police or punishing cities that defund their police forces. And that’s not happening anytime soon.

So why go through the hassle? And why would Democrats vote for these Republican amendments that do nothing but make their liberal and progressive supporters angry? Well, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., made that pretty clear in a speech praising Tuberville’s amendment.

I mean, sure, logically it makes sense to assume Democrats deprived GOP campaigns of a specific attack in the midterms. But we saw last year that it doesn’t matter if moderate Democrats say, repeatedly, that they don’t want police defunded — they’ll be attacked for it anyway.

Now, despite Democrats being sure that attacking Republicans as the real party that wants to defund the police was a good idea, they’re cornered into backing proposals like Hawley’s to keep that talking point alive.

Moreover, as Time’s Molly Ball put it on CNN on Wednesday: “The real political problem here for the Democrats here, obviously, is the apple pie component of this. Because there are fans of pumpkin pie, there are fans of cherry pie. … So having put the entire Senate on the record in favor of apple pie, they might have to answer for that down the road.”

She’s right: Any way you slice it, this is why the GOP loves these vote-a-ramas. They’re chances to force their opponents to take votes on issues that Democrats aren’t prepared to fight over. Which is exactly what Hawley’s amendment accomplished.

Will it put a single extra police officer on the street? No. But will it pop up in any number of attack ads in fall 2022? Absolutely.