Thursday, October 28, 2010

Into the Ditch

On the campaign trail, one of President Obama's favorite speech lines has been about Republicans driving the economy into the ditch. He claims to have spent two years trying to get us back out of that ditch, but makes certain that his audience understands that the Democrats did not put us there.

I object. The facts are that the economy was doing relatively well until 2007 when the Democrats assumed control of both houses of Congress. To stay with the President's analogy for a moment, it was in January, 2007 when the Pelosi-Reid leadership team grabbed the wheel and jerked us into the ditch. Nothing speaks louder than the facts.

Unemployment at the beginning of 2007 after 12 years of Republican control of Congress and 6 years of the Bush Administration stood at 4.1 percent. Republican policies had the American workforce at close to full employment levels. The nominal GDP growth rate was 6.88 percent. That rate was almost double what it had been when the GOP took over Congress in 1995. The budget deficit was $161 billion, much too high compared to the balanced budgets of earlier in the decade, but was in the process of dropping.

So where were we two years into the Pelosi-Reid era on Capitol Hill? In January, 2009 unemployment had climbed to 7.2 percent. Nominal GDP growth was negative at a minus 5.8 percent. The budget deficit swelled to $455 billion and was on its way to the record of $1.4 trillion. We were in the ditch, not because Republicans drove us there, but because the Democrats came to power and went on a spending spree.

Mr. President, the real record is clear. It was the borrow and spend philosophy that the Pelosi-Reid Democratic Congress revived which crashed us into your metaphorical ditch. And you compounded the problem with massive new spending for a stimulus program which failed, with massive new regulations on the productive sectors of our economy and with a health care program that threatens to expand business costs for years to come. All of this has led to a weak economic growth rate, massive record deficits and unemployment and underemployment rates that are totally unacceptable. Recent independent economic projections based on your economic philosophy do not see us getting back to average unemployment numbers of 5 to 6 percent until 2018.

Clearly, the American people do not believe this is the change they signed for in 2008. Republicans still have to make amends for their own congressional budget busting when they were last in the majority. And if they fail to deliver on promises to cut deficits and deal with debt expansion, the American people will be intolerant of their assurances, too. But for the moment they are prepared to give Republicans another chance simply because the Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration have failed. No amount of blame shifting and political character assassination are going to overcome that conclusion.

In the ditch. We certainly are. The economic facts of life starkly show who put us there. Four years of Democratic big government advocates controlling the levers of power on Capitol Hill have produced an economic calamity. Correction is on the way delivered by the American people on election day.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dealing With Deficits

The Congressional budget process is broken. It seems likely that neither the House or the Senate will even consider a budget this year. And even if both houses were to pass a budget, it is impossible to imagine a joint budget resolution ( something agreed to by both bodies) emerging. Just as problematic, the appropriations process also will fail to produce the series of spending bills required to keep the government running, but will again resort to temporary stopgap measures. Eventually all of the the spending will get wrapped into a huge, almost incomprehensible, package that will emerge sometime toward the end of the current calendar year.

When Americans wonder why we are faced with such massive debt and deficit, they need look no further than the escalating failure of the congressional budgeting and spending. No more important annual duty exists for the Congress than this one. The current House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt of South Carolina said some years ago, "If you can't budget, you can't govern." Of course he said that when Republicans controlled Capitol Hill, but his words carry a lot of truth and help emphasize, in light of his own inability to even produce a budget, that the problem is very much a bi-partisan one.

Congressional Democrats supported by President Obama told the nation earlier this year that they had dealt with the problem with legislation known as Pay Go. Under this law which they passed and the President signed, no spending was to occur that was not paid for by either spending cuts in other areas or new revenues. But according to a recent ABC News report, since the time of the legislation's approval, Congress has gone on a spending spree that has cost $230 billion in new deficit and debt. And to punctuate the problem, ABC explained that the debt added in the last year was one trillion dollars, an amount that took the United States over 200 years to accumulate from it's founding. So, the promise of Pay Go has not materialized and makes that effort look pathetic.

So, what to do? The answer lies in some considerable congressional restructuring and a simple decision to obey congressional legislative rules. The rules state that nothing can be spent unless the spending has been properly authorized, meaning that policy for the spending has been set. This rule is regularly waived in the legislative process. Whole agencies have gone without proper authorization for years, meaning that they are spending money without a policy plan. They get their money from an appropriations process which simply ignores the rules and the fact that none of the appropriate policy legislation is in place. Because Congress can waive its own rules by majority vote, the practice has become extensive.

The harm in this kind of governance is considerable. Without long-term policy, departments and agencies drift along without purpose and without focus. Appropriations are for one year only, so even though they get their money, the departments and agencies have no real sense about where they are headed and why, a sure incubator for waste and abuse. The authorization process is designed to lay out long term programs which focus on results. The appropriations process is designed to determine the spending levels required to carry out the policies and programs and do so on an annual basis. The fact that appropriations have come to dominate congressional deliberations means short-term focus and and long-term mismanagement. Is it any wonder that the result is more debt and deficit? And it happens all because Congress refuses to live by its own rules. The answer -- pass no spending bill unless the policy is in place thereby forcing the authorization process to work.

But the simple act of requiring authorizations will require some restructuring on Capitol Hill to accommodate modern realities. A fundamental congressional reform should be the elimination of separate appropriations committees in the two house of Congress. Instead, exclusive appropriations subcommittees should be established in all the policy committees of the House and Senate. The appropriations subcommittees would be responsible for determining the annual spending for the areas under the jurisdiction of that committee. Therefore, the appropriators would be included in the setting of long term policy through their participation on the full authorizing committee and those on the committee focused on policy would be a part of approving the spending plan at the full committee level. This pattern of shared responsibility would end up including all members of both bodies in the work of policy setting and yearly funding of the policies they approved.

Just changing the structure would not negate the need to pass the bills through both full House and full Senate, but it would improve the prospects for that activity, too. Because all Representatives and Senators would have the burden of carrying both authorizing bills and appropriations bills to the Floor, the level of debate and understanding would certainly improve. And if bills were considered under circumstances allowing for more amendments and debate, the atmosphere for attaining more bi-partisan action would also improve.

If the thought of changing the work of Congress in such a fundamental way seems daunting, it does need to be recognized that prior to the 1860s, there was no separate appropriations committee. Sometimes what's old should become new again. And that goes for reducing debt and deficit, too. And all it takes is following the rules.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Simple Majority

Some years back when I served in the Congress I was told that for every complex, complicated problem there is a simple, easy answer. And invariably that answer is wrong.

Whenever I hear the President or Administration spokesmen talking about passing their health bill with a "simple up and down vote" or a "simple majority" I am reminded of what I was told years ago.

The idea that this complicated, complex, expensive, backroom deal cluttered and massive health insurance reform would be jammed through the Senate using arcane and inappropriate procedures to overcome Senate rules is bound to be wrong. The rules of the Senate are meant to protect the country from precipitous and unwise actions. And even though the President is right that most Americans could care less about those rules, the fact is that every American should care deeply about the damage that can be done when the rules are not followed.

What we have here is a question that goes to the heart of how we govern ourselves. The forefathers recognized the difficulties in using representative government as the tool for public decision-making. They distrusted power. They had watched kings become tyrants and small groups of elites force unwanted policies on the citizenry. They wanted to assure within the Constitution that the will of the majority could be heard, but also that power elites within the government could not crush the aspirations of the populace with precipitous actions.

That distrust of power led them to create two houses of Congress, each with its own role within our governance system. The fact is the uniqueness of the two bodies often creates tension between them which is exactly what the forefathers intended. The House of Representatives is structured to permit the majority to prevail. Its rules and precedents are meant to allow the majority party to get its way everyday. On the other hand, the Senate is structured to assure that any measure which comes before it has many difficult hurdles to clear in order to assure that no President or runaway legislative majority can do irreparable harm. Among those hurdles is the requirement for a super majority agreement to proceed to debate controversial matters.

About a quarter of a century ago there was decision made to modify the Senate rules to allow more expeditious treatment of budget related issues. The super majority requirement was lifted for matters relating strictly to budgetary issues. This procedure was never intended to be prostituted into a scheme for making major policy decisions which could not obtain the necessary super majority clearance. In fact, the legislative intent as expressed at the time of adoption made quite clear that the budget exceptions were to be very narrow in scope.

It is that procedure which the Obama Administration seeks to exploit to pass a massive bill that will have dramatic impact on one-seventh of the entire national economy. They are attempting to thwart the will of the majority of the citizenry with this power grab and are consciously destroying one the safeguards our forefathers provided in constitutional government.

If the Senate becomes a place where "simple majorities" can do politically popular things without the kind of contemplation and adjudication that the forefathers saw as necessary to protect against the abuse of power, one of the bulwarks of democracy will have been breached. History is replete with instances where freedom is destroyed by those whose momentary agendas are more important to them than the responsibility to accomplish their goals within the rules. History is replete with simple majorities taking democracy from freedom to the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. History teaches us that the slow, cumbersome procedures of the U.S. Senate are decried by both political parties when they are seeking to push through their agendas. But history also teaches us that policy which survives that process of Senate deliberation is usually the better for it.

Democratic governance is a messy, cumbersome, complicated and complex process. It is not amenable to simple solutions. The simple shortcut, the simple majority, is most likely to be wrong. And the pathway toward taking that simple shortcut well could be destructive of one the foundations that keeps us free.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Time to Change the Filibuster Rule

Legislation recently has been introduced to change the way the United States Senate conducts its business. That legislation calls for ending the use of the filibuster in Senate deliberations. I agree that the filibuster rule should be changed. I do not agree that the right change is to end its use. Instead, I would argue that the requirements for stopping a filibuster should be made more stringent.

Filibusters are a way for Senators who do not agree with a proposition before the Congress to extend the debate on that matter. Because individual Senators have such personal clout inside that body's procedures, their ability to extend debate can often doom a piece of legislation or the confirmation of the presidential appointee. The only way available for the Senate to shut down extended debate is to invoke cloture, or in other words, vote to close the debate. To do so under present Senate rules requires 60 votes or three fifths of all the Members of the Senate.

But the three fifths rule is of fairly recent vintage. Up until 1975 it took two thirds of the Senate or 67 votes to shut off debate. The change at that time was based on the same arguments being used today, namely that a handful of Senators should not be permitted to thwart the will of the majority. In 1975 it was decided that a three fifths supermajority would preserve the ability of dissenting Senators to have their say and perhaps even block action, but would provide a way for crucial business to be conducted.

What was not anticipated by the 1975 "reform" was how much it would change the Senate as an institution. Since that time the numbers of filibusters, threats of filibusters and votes to invoke cloture have skyrocketed. The Senate has become a far more partisan place. Presidential appointments to key positions in the government are regularly held hostage. Some observers contend that the Senate has become dysfunctional.

It would be hard to contend that all of this damage to the institution of the Senate rests with the change of the filibuster rule. But it is hard to ignore the statistical data indicating how much more frequently the filibuster or the threat of filibuster is used compared to thirty-five years ago. And it is also hard to ignore the fact that the filibuster usage could be a key factor in the breakdown of bipartisan compromises within the Senate.

So long as the majority party, whether it was the Democrats or the Republicans, needed two thirds of the Senate to agree before they could act, the need for finding some degree of bipartisan consensus was obvious. Few times, if any, has one party controlled two thirds of the seats in the Senate. But as we have witnessed in recent months, it is possible for one party to have three fifths of the seats. Or, as is more common, it is possible for one party to have almost three fifths of the seats so that with a little wheeling and dealing, the necessary few votes needed to break a filibuster can be found. And the result is that outside and inside pressure is brought for purely partisan approaches to governing.

In the days when cloture required a two thirds vote, the majority leadership had to start with the premise that they could not achieve their goals with a purely partisan agenda. Beginning in the committees and working through to the debate on the Senate floor, the institutional requirement was for some degree, in most cases a considerable degree, of bipartisan consensus and cooperation. The gentleman's club approach that was fostered did not please many of the partisans outside the doors of the Senate, but it did produce an atmosphere conducive to bipartisan governance.

For all of those reasons, the current proposals for further diminishing the vote needed to invoke cloture are precisely the wrong formula. Bitter partisanship will florish and the Senate will become more dysfunctional.

Much of America is hungering today for Democrats and Republicans to find a way to cooperate and solve the vexing issues of our time. They see the Congress as a bickering impediment to finding national solutions. Bipartisan governance would be a welcome change. That change could begin with changing the filibuster rule back to where it was just a few years ago; if you cannot get two-thirds of the Senate to agree, you cannot proceed.