In Class With David Menefee-Libey: "The U.S. Congress"
Taught each spring by Professor David Menefee-Libey, The United States Congress has been a staple of the Politics Department for 30 years. The class culminates with a simulation in which students take on the roles of actual senators in four lively legislative sessions. The following is edited and adapted from a March discussion, shortly before the passage of health care reform.
David Menefee-Libey: We’ve been talking about budget reconciliation a lot recently and having a collective freak-out about it and whether it’s unconstitutional or illegal or not normal. In the book we’re reading, Charles Cushman writes about where reconciliation comes from and why it exists. What is budget reconciliation?
Joe: It’s a process where House and Senate can negotiate directly on the budget.
DML: What does it reconcile?
Nathan: The two chambers, the two versions of the bill.
DML: Which two versions?
Leslie: The goals of the budget committees versus the final bills.
DML: Exactly. At the start of the process, the House and Senate pass a budget resolution that comes out of their budget committees. The budget resolution has three main things in it—what overall spending is going to look like, broken into 13 big categories of appropriations; what taxes are going to look like and what the resulting debt will be.
The resolution comes out of the budget committees in the House and Senate, then the authorization and appropriation committees do their work and, at the end, they try to reconcile the differences between the budget resolution and what those committees did.
We’ve been talking about the overall organizing logic of the place—parties push it together and committees pull it apart. There is this centrifugal force from the committees; they bring their own legislation to the floor and pull the place apart, and the leadership tries to find things that will pull it back together. Reconciliation is one thing the majority party can use to pull it back together again.
If the committees ignore the budget resolution, reconciliation has the force of law. It goes to the floor on an expedited calendar. It can’t be filibustered in the Senate and has priority in the House. It can roll back anything the committees did, or it can override the original budget resolution. Members get to choose which version they want by voting it up or down.
Nathan: What if there is a difference between the House and Senate?
DML: They go to a conference.
The reconciliation resolution has been done 21 times since the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act was created in 1974. In 1986, there was the Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation or COBRA. One of the things that got thrown into it was the ability to purchase the extension of health insurance beyond the expiration of your current health insurance. It’s very common that major health care legislation is done through reconciliation.
Rachel: Isn’t there tension between the authorizing and appropriating committees?
DML: There are tensions all over. They’re always stepping on each other and they fight like crazy.
You have the Senate Appropriations Committee and it has an armed services subcommittee that deals with defense budgets, and the same thing is true in the House. You also have the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. When the secretary of defense goes before
Congress to argue for his budget, he testifies four times in front of four different committees. Talk about centrifugal forces. Each of these committees has its own questions and own priorities and own preferences about what good defense policy is. One of these committees might start funding the F-22 again. The secretary of defense comes in and says we don’t want any F-22s; they cost too much and we don’t have any use for them.
Someone on the House Armed Services Defense Appropriations Subcommittee says, “But the wings are built in my district and I want them.” The reconciliation stage is where it gets all cleaned up.
There are exceptions. In the case of a single bill like the Medicare prescription drug benefit, how did that make it through the budget reconciliation process? How did the Iraq War make it through? It’s cost us a trillion dollars. One of the problems is there are things that they exempt from the budget resolution and reconciliation process. They do it in omnibus legislation that deals with the whole problem all at once.
Martin Luther talked about this—that human beings in their ingenuity are able to create instruments for preventing themselves from doing bad things, but, because they’re human beings, they can always find ways around what they created.
Leslie: How does this process figure into deficit or surplus spending? Do congresses think about that during the initial budget resolution?
DML: Absolutely. They’re supposed to set what their deficit target is for that year; it’s supposed to be helpful. This morning I looked at the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) record of taxing and spending from 1970 to now. In most years there were deficits; there was a period of surpluses during the Clinton Administration. If you look at averages over a period of time, the percent of GDP that’s spent by the federal government is about 19 and one-half percent of GDP.
The average percent of the GDP that’s taxed over this 40-year period is 18 percent; so basically over that whole period of time, the average deficit is one and a half percent of the GDP over 40 years, which adds up. That is supposed to be regulated by the budget process but it turns out they keep on doing stuff like the Medicare prescription drug benefit or the Iraq War outside the budget.
Leslie: Besides that, Congress passes tax cuts. Why is it they do that when we’re already in deficit spending?
DML: You tell me.
Ariel: They want votes.
DML: Dick Cheney famously said in 2003—when they were getting ready for the reelection, and people asked, “Aren’t you worried about deficits?—that no one has ever been penalized in an election for deficits.
Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die. There are lots of clichés about this in our culture. This is an endemic problem, and they’ve tried to fix it a couple of times, once late in the Reagan Administration, after the ’86 midterm election. The lame-duck Congress passed comprehensive tax reform that dramatically reformed the system, simplified it and raised taxes, especially on upper-income people. Reagan supported one of the largest tax increases in American history to try to get some control over the deficit and that helped a lot.
The second time was when deficits ballooned again in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Bush signed a big tax increase and a budget reform that put stricter limits on the process. Then, in 1993, under Clinton, Congress passed big tax increases that led to surpluses and the longest period of economic growth in American history without a recession.
There hasn’t been a reform of the budget process since then. But there are efforts, Congress keeps trying. They try to fix this, but they keep on blowing it up. And one reason it’s so hard to fix is because of the pressures from home. Why else is it so hard to fix?
Joe: From the game theory aspect, if you create a deficit, it’s not something you are on record voting for, whereas if you vote for tax increases you’re on the record for that.
DML: That’s well put. That’s right. Deficits result from a series of accumulated actions, none of which are deficit-creating actions in and of themselves.
Leslie: It’s also about the way Republicans view taxes and Democrats view taxes; things that come through Congress will be voted for primarily by the party.
DML: So it gets filtered through these partisan lenses. Democrats tell themselves that it’s all about income inequality and if we had the courage to tax wealthy people, this would all go away. And the Republicans say Democrats believe in big government and we need to starve the beast and cut taxes and eventually that will force reductions in spending. Both those are wrong, but they are deeply embedded in people’s partisan consciousness.
M-L: ... I want to talk about the last chapter of Sinclair’s book where she discusses the implications of unorthodoxy—the “so what?” question. She’s going back to some extent to what Mann and Ornstein were saying about bad legislative process leading to bad policy. Do you think that argument is right?
Scott: She seems a lot less critical. I think she says it arises from necessity more than Mann and Ornstein do. I don’t know that they see it happening from necessity as much as it is a lack of willingness to compromise. I don’t think she buys into that.
M-L: I think that’s fair.
Andrew: Sinclair spends a lot of time in the first chapters of her book explaining the origins not so much of unorthodox lawmaking but the triggers that caused it. In the Mann and Ornstein book, it’s about the history of how things got worse without really explaining why.
M-L: Do you end up where Scott does? Is she less negative?
Andrew: I think so. She says there’s been polarization but talks about a lot of things that, almost out of necessity, caused these things to happen. It’s almost logical. I don’t want to say that Mann and Ornstein are surprised by what happened, but they’re certainly more emotional.
M-L: They’re certainly offended. She’s less offended. Is hers a better book to close the semester with? If you close with Mann and Ornstein, people will be pretty pessimistic. Sinclair says, OK, so it’s a rough time, we’re going to be OK. ...
Joseph: ... She makes a point at the end that maybe there are some good things about this too; that maybe the party that is the most intense about issues is going to come out as the winner in the end. She also talks about the fact that passing fewer bills overall isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a more balanced view.
M-L: What’s changed is that 15 years ago when you would read the conclusions of books like this, there was often this conversation about the tension between accountability and responsibility. On the one hand, members of Congress had to be accountable to their constituencies and had to be able to get themselves elected and reelected. On the other hand, they were responsible for governing and making law and, sometimes in order to do one thing, they had to ignore the other. The idea was that one of the most corrosive challenges to responsible, good policy-making was how all these people were running for reelection and how that was the most corrosive influence. There has been this shift in the last 10 or 12 years where the thinking is that the most corrosive influence is that they are so polarized that they are more interested in beating each other than they are in making good government policy. I think that, to some extent, Sinclair is still in this old school, where she is saying that if you give these people authority to make policy and do it responsibly, they’re going to be able to work out legislation that is acceptable in terms of quality. She certainly doesn’t like how ugly it’s become, but I don’t think she’s as terrified that it’s going to destroy the world. ...