Adding more items to the congressional "to do" list

  • 27 December 2017
  • NormanL
Adding more items to the congressional "to do" list

The new tax reform law is a big achievement for congressional Republicans, including as it does a number of reforms that conservatives have long advocated. But as Michael Barone writes in the Washington Examiner, there are other items on the "to do" list that, while largely unknown to the voting public, are also in desperate need of reform. The items in question are rules Congress must follow as it crafts the federal budget. These 1970s vintage rules were intended to make the budget process rational, and budgets sensible. They have done neither:

The restrictions of the 1974 Budget Control Act and the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office it created were intended to provide clarity and restraints on presidents and Congresses. Ironically, we had mostly balanced budgets before 1974 and mostly budget deficits since.

Another 1970s reform that has proved counterproductive involved changes in Senate filibuster rules. The number of votes to end a filibuster was reduced from 67 to 60, and filibusterers were no longer required to hold the floor, speaking all night if need be, to block passage of legislation. The result: many more filibusters than before and an effective requirement — unimagined when I was writing the first edition of The Almanac of American Politics in 1970-71 — of a supermajority of 60 votes to pass major laws.

As any student of political behavior might have predicted, both parties have learned to game these systems. Obamacare and the tax bill provide many examples.

Democrats got the CBO to count the revenue generated by Obamacare’s Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, Act taxes, fully aware that program's postponed and unsustainable costs would never be incurred. Republicans likewise took some $300 billion of savings, suddenly available when CBO revised its clearly mistaken estimates of costs of repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate, to pay for tax cuts it couldn’t otherwise get.

This is not a criticism of CBO, which has remained properly nonpartisan and which was designed to estimate revenue flows, not personal choices — such as how many young people would rather pay small individual mandate penalties rather than expensive Obamacare health insurance premiums.

It’s a criticism of the notion that you can create neutral rules that will guide elected politicians to desired results. Politicians and the voters they represent have policy goals they believe important and they have their own ways — fallible, but subject to criticism and debate — to estimate the likely effects of particular policies.

My observation over the years is that systems intended to be failsafe are sure to fail. Forty years of the Budget Control Act regime and 30 years of the opaque Byrd Rule (which allows some Senate measures to pass with 50 votes while others require 60) have shown that both parties have figured out how to game the rules enough to foil those the intended purposes.

Barone says the Constitution and the rules of each chamber provide enough checks on legislative excesses, and worked quite well for the bulk of the nation's history. Repealing the items he identifies won't guarantee a return to more sensible budgeting, or for that matter, more reasonable congressional behavior. Those aims are always at the mercy of individual legislators and their sometimes quirky personalities.

But if the 1970s era rules have failed to do what they were intended to do, then it makes perfect sense to revisit them, and debate whether changes are warranted. Yes, yes...that's asking a lot of most members of our existing political class. But some of them have enough grit, and common sense, to take up the challenge. Here's hoping they do so in the coming year.