Friday, February 5, 2021

Legislative Dada


Jean Tinguely, Ballet des Pauvres, 1961, via WikiArt.

Now that the budget reconciliation process is pretty much inevitable for the passing of the Covid relief plan, and the Senate's version of the bill has passed the Senate (at about 5:30 this morning), it's time to stop whipping up enthusiasm for this blow against Republican obstruction and start thinking about how disappointing and dispiriting it's going to be in actual practice, or, as Ezra Klein tells us from his new perch at The Times ("The Senate Has Become a Dadaist Nightmare")

The modern use of budget reconciliation is a kludge. The institution has become paralyzed by the filibuster and rather than rewriting its rules to solve that problem, senators have instead patched it through budget reconciliation. The Senate gets just enough done that no one can say it is actually impossible to pass big bills through the body. But budget reconciliation narrows the range of problems Congress can solve, the number of bills it can pass and the policy mechanisms it can use. No one would ever design a legislative body that worked this way, but this is how the Senate has come to work, one kludge on top of another. “For any particular problem we have arrived at the most Gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response,” [Steven] Teles wrote. That is both an apt description of today’s Senate and of the kind of policy budget reconciliation produces.

In fact it's the king of kludges. The only other time the word "kludge" has ever been used as something other than a joke (a 1993 Russell Baker joke) in The Times was by Paul Krugman, in 2013 columns about the greatest of all reconciliation maneuvers, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and a reference to the same Steven Teles paper:

Still, the fact remains that Obamacare is an immense kludge — a clumsy, ugly structure that more or less deals with a problem, but in an inefficient way. 

The thing is, such better-than-nothing-but-pretty-bad solutions have become the norm in American governance. As Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University put it in a recent essay, we’ve become a “kludgeocracy.” And the main reason that is happening, I’d argue, is ideology.

The best thing about Ezra joining The Times is that somebody other than me will be referencing Dada in talking about US politics.

Dr. K. was talking about the kludginess of the bill's Jean Tinguely design, intended to provide US citizens with the benefits of universal healthcare but with layers of complexity built in to ensure that no  insurance company would lose a dime on this revolution; but he might as well have been talking about the way it was snuck through the Senate, by the reconciliation procedure, with the effect that the new law couldn't be implemented for four years (putting it into operation right away would have increased the deficit in a year 10 years after its 2010 passage, thus causing an infringement of one of the Byrd Rules instituted by Senator Robert Byrd in 1990.

We're going to be seeing Byrd Rule problems in the Covid relief bill as well. Paul Krawzak at Roll Call suggests close to half of the $1.9 trillion can't be voted on through the reconciliation procedure, because the Byrd Rule says the procedure is only for mandatory government spending ("entitlements"), not discretionary spending:

Provisions that could fall to the Byrd rule include funding such as a proposed $170 billion for education; $160 billion for vaccines, testing and public health jobs; $40 billion for child care; and many more. 

The Byrd rule also bars measures that have no impact on the federal budget or are “merely incidental” to their impact on the budget. It’s widely agreed that the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would not survive the Byrd rule, for instance. 

Other provisions in the same boat include extending a moratorium on evictions, although the administration can do so temporarily without Congress, and an employer mandate to provide paid family leave — though tax credits to reimburse firms that opt to provide leave would be allowed.

Or maybe not, you know, because the Senate doesn't always obey its own rules. The 2017 Trump tax bill, for example, passed through reconciliation, failed to include a "sunset" provision for the corporate tax cut, but was kludged up to compensate—apparently because they couldn't get enough Republican votes for the bill without it. Similarly, with the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee—that's one Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and just typing it makes me feel warm all over—working at his wiliest, various things can probably be saved, notably the minimum wage provision (it's germane because it increases the amount of money the federal government has to pay on wages, and also because by boosting incomes across the economy it will reduce the amount of money the government spends on poverty reduction—a CBO report on this is expected sometime soon).

But I'm preparing for disappointment, as a bill without most of these provisions isn't going to do the job we need (even as the one that has the least relevance to policy, that $1400 check, survives)—without the school assistance and vaccine funding it won't even help with Covid. And returning us, perhaps, to the awful spot where only the abolition of the filibuster can fix things even temporarily, and we know that's just not going to happen, 

And more and more convinced that the only way to get this stupid form of government working properly is to get rid of the Senate altogether, which means it's never going to happen.

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