Editorial January 9, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“What dynamic scoring doesn’t seem to calculate is the impact less tax revenue will have on the operations of the federal government.”

A new majority will always be fiddling with something and that is expected; when a previous Congress decided to rename the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Office one wondered what the point was but, shy of the cost of new letterhead, no big deal.

This Majority, however, is fiddling with the budget process in a way that still raises the question, “What’s the point?” and the answer is something of a guess and possibly quite a big deal.

The fiddling is called ‘Dynamic Scoring’ and while it seems the intent is to project more accurately the economic impact of a major bill it seems like something of a crap shoot that wants to justify some spending or cutting now based on how that will impact things 20 years in the future.

In the present, the Congressional Budget Office calculates the impact of a bill’s increases or reductions in revenues and outlays based on the most current budget. The budget caps put any spending or revenue increases or decreases in perspective; the perspective of what Congress has agreed to spend and expects to take in.

Dynamic scoring is about tax cuts that tax cutters always hold will ultimately return revenues to the Treasury. That is the concept of ‘trickle down economics’ made popular by President Reagan.  Dynamic Scoring, instead of measuring the impact of legislation against a definite bottom line, requires CBO to calculate the ‘reaction’ in the wider economy and in the economy’s nooks and crannies how a tax break would be received and acted on by businesses and individuals and the businesses effected by the individuals spending the tax break if they get one, and so on.

What dynamic scoring doesn’t seem to calculate is the impact less tax revenue will have on the operations of the federal government. That side of things is likely to be left to the appropriations process but as an afterthought maybe shouldn’t be. CBO tells Congress how much a bill will increase or decrease the deficit but rarely tells them how the government will run with or without those revenues. That, of course, is not CBO’s job. It is Congress’ job and dynamic scoring will help this Congress do that job but as it sees fit, and what this Congress sees fit is a smaller, less expensive government.

We should keep in mind that budget are always ten year budgets but no one expects the numbers to hold for that long and there is a reason for that even dynamic scoring can’t predict; off budget spending for wars, natural disasters, pandemics, and other unexpected problems requiring surges of tax dollars to solve. With those economic anomalies always hanging in the wings calculating the impact of a tax break out 20 years can’t possibly be accurate but could provide an argument, a straw man argument, that even though things are bad we still have an number of years left of the 20 year projection to see it all work out. What could be worse? If that gamble on a 20 year timeline results in an attitude, an assumption that the projections will arrive…someday. Just hang in there.

Looking Forward by Looking Back

By Lee H. Hamilton

“The congressional leadership is now under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past”

Hamilton

Hamilton

With the 114th Congress just underway, the political world is focused intently on the road ahead. Taxes, trade, immigration, climate change, job creation, the Affordable Care Act  there’s a long list of issues and one burning question: whether a Republican Congress and a Democratic President can find common ground.

Yet before we get worked up about what’s to come, we need to take a hard look at the Congress that just ended and ask a different question: Why was it such an abject failure?

Let’s start with a basic number. According to the Library of Congress, 296 bills were passed by the 113th Congress and signed by the President. Just for comparison’s sake, the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-48 got 906 bills through. The Financial Times called this most recent version “the least productive Congress in modern U.S. history.” The only silver lining was that the cost of running Congress was down 11 percent.

Congress failed most spectacularly on the basics. Not one of the dozen annual appropriations bills passed, while the budget resolution, which is supposed to set overall fiscal policy, never even got to a vote. In both houses, the leaders did what they could to make the legislative body of the world’s greatest democracy as undemocratic as possible. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid used legislative maneuvers to block amendments more often during his time as majority leader than any of his five predecessors. In the House, Republican leaders used so-called “closed rules,” which prohibit amendments, a record number of times. Both approaches denied by legislative device the opportunity for Congress to work its will.

When Congress did legislate, it did so in the worst possible way — by using an “omnibus” spending bill into which it crammed everything it could manage. The bill was put together in a single week, guaranteeing minimal study by the members of Congress who voted on it. Ostensibly meant to fund the government through September, it contained a host of provisions that deserved a full airing.

Instead, with virtually no public debate, Congress multiplied the amount of money that wealthy donors can give to the political parties; loosened regulations on Wall Street; cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, forcing it to its lowest staffing level in over two decades; and hacked funding for the IRS. This last measure, a gift to tax cheats, was an especially egregious assault on ordinary taxpayers, who will now be asked to foot a bill that robust enforcement of the tax laws would have spared them.

Congress’s reliance on omnibus bills, which are written in secret, has had a variety of pernicious effects. The procedure violates every rule of good legislative process, denying transparency and accountability. It allows Capitol Hill to curry favor with all sorts of special interests but no public reckoning. It forces — or allows — members to vote for provisions that would have had little chance of surviving on their own. And it puts enormous power in the hands of the leadership of both parties — not least because lobbyists have come to understand that they need to have a representative in the room where the omnibus is crafted, and therefore they focus money and attention on leaders.

The last Congress maintained one other lamentable trend: it took “oversight” to mean injecting its investigations with excessive partisanship — Benghazi, the IRS’s examination of conservative groups, the VA’s mishandling of health care for veterans — while forgetting the crucial, ongoing oversight of government. It allowed itself to be co-opted by the intelligence community, which persuaded Congress to neglect a public debate on massive surveillance, hacked the Senate’s computers, misled Congress about the nature and extent of torture, and leaked classified details to the media.

The congressional leadership is now under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past — by paying more attention to their constituents than to special interests; enforcing their own ethics rules more vigorously; and most of all, following the “regular order” based on 200 years of legislative experience, which would allow the full debate and votes Congress needs to serve as a true coequal branch of government.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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The Oath and Its Problems

The Oath Act of June 1, 1789, was the first legislation passed by the Senate and the first law signed by President George Washington. It prescribed the following oath: “I __ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” On June 4, 1789, Senate president John Adams administered that new oath to all senators, setting a pattern that future presiding officers followed, without controversy, for the next 74 years.

During the Civil War, Congress instituted the Test Oath (below), created in part to prevent ex-Confederates from taking federal positions. The Senate amended this oath four times between 1864 and 1884, when as part of a general revision of its rules, it repealed the Test Oath. Since then, the solemn oath prescribed by law has been: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Class of 1863: Should New Senators be Required to Take the “Ironclad Test Oath”?

When the newly elected senators of the 38th Congress appeared to take the oath of office in March 1863, an interesting debate arose in the chamber. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress enacted the so-called “Ironclad Test Oath,” requiring civil servants and military officers to swear not only to future loyalty but also to affirm that they had never previously engaged in disloyal conduct. Swearing in new senators for the first time since the passage of this law, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner offered a resolution to require senators to take the new Test Oath. Senators who had objected to the law at the time of its passage now objected to Sumner’s resolution. “Congress has no power to impose a test oath upon the members of Congress,” argued Kentucky senator Garrett Davis, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. “It never was intended by the framers of the Constitution to allow the subject of disqualification or qualification of members of Congress to be interfered with by legislation,” he insisted. Sumner argued that the Senate “ought to set an example of obedience” to the laws. “How can you expect obedience to the laws of the land if here in the Senate you set an example of disobedience?” he inquired. In March 1863 the Senate settled on making the test oath voluntary for senators. Sumner persisted in his efforts, however, and in 1864 succeeded in making the Test Oath mandatory for all senators, leading Delaware senator James Bayard to resign in protest.