Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Last week I argued that Republicans needed to reorder the deadlines they face to unwind the remainder of the fiscal cliff by pushing the debt ceiling back until after sequestration and a new Continuing Resolution (CR) are passed. The debt ceiling seemed the wrong battle to have first both politically and for the well-being of world financial markets. It also seemed disingenuous not to vote to cover the debts for money that they had a hand in appropriating.
After a three day retreat in Williamsburg, House Republicans have decided to go one better. On Wednesday, they are expected to pass a measure that takes care of the debt ceiling until May, but they have decided to get creative and “gently nudge” the Senate to pass a budget. And by gently nudge, they’re using the political equivalent of a ballpeen hammer.
Attached to the bill extending the debt ceiling will be a measure that withholds congressional pay if the respective bodies don’t pass a budget by April 15th. House Republicans, tired of taking exclusive heat for the gridlock in Washington, are being less than subtle that it has been almost four years since the Senate has passed a budget out of their chamber. To emphasize the point, one of the House Republicans’ favorite talking points early this week was “The last time the Senate passed a budget, the iPad didn’t exist.”
Sure, the measure is a bit gimmicky. After all, it only requires the House to pass their version of a budget to continue getting paid, and the Senate to do likewise. There is no measure requiring both bodies to pass a finalized budget before the fiscal year end to continue receiving their pay – something that would definitely end this cycle of temporary battles over continuing resolutions. Despite this, however, progress can still be demonstrated on several fronts.
The Senate leadership, without much high ground to stand on in refusing the measure, has said they won’t object to the addition of the pay withholding trigger. The White House, who has always demanded a “clean” increase to the debt ceiling, has said if this measure passes Congress they won’t veto it.
Politically, it is a 180 degree change from where Republicans were sitting on New Years’ Day, with little political capital and even less leverage in these negotiations. Three weeks later, Republicans – at least temporarily – are setting the agenda. For a party whose political victories are few and far between lately, they’ll definitely take this one.
More importantly, this is a step to return the appropriations process to a more normalized state. The appropriation and spending of taxpayers’ dollars has been less about a systematic budgetary process through committees and more about cobbling together last minute short term compromises that tend to reward the well-connected over the prudent.
Furthermore, by forcing the Senate to pass a budget, Senators will now be equally on record of voting for or against tax and spending measures. Until now, the House has been solely on the record for tough budget cuts. Cuts that were widely used against them in the 2012 campaign.
The Senate, led by Democrats, must now also go on record whether they are for budget cuts – and if so, which ones. Or, they can pass a status quo budget which favors more borrowing and spending.
Regardless, with both a Republican House budget and a Democratic Senate budget, there will at least be two clear goal posts for both politicians and the public to debate between April and September. There will likely be two distinct visions and paths for the country to take. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is what the country sorely needs.
Hopefully, this move will be a small step on a return path to a functional government. It will be up to us, as a people, to make sure the debate happens between the House and Senate after April to ensure which vision presented for the country’s financial future will survive this budget process.
In the interim, it’s not too early to ask that the next Continuing Resolution incorporate another trip wire. Neither body of Congress should be paid if both sides have not passed a budget by the end of this fiscal year on September 30th.