The 'Secret Playbook' for Congress' budget battle

Trick plays. Gimmicks. The budget game is confusing. Istook shares part of the Secret Playbook Congress uses in last-minute budget battles. Photo: Special to the Washington Times

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2013 — Did you miss the hidden-ball trick play the Senate pulled on Friday? Is the House running trick plays of its own?

The budget game is confusing, so let me share part of the playbook I learned during my 14 years as a Congressman.


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Game Situation

To start, Friday’s 68-30 Senate vote “waived the provisions” (Congress-speak for “broke the promises”) of the budget rules. The 2011 budget deal promised spending cuts in exchange for adding over $2 trillion to the debt ceiling.

Now Senators voted to free themselves from that 2011 promise. Expect them to offer new promises (to be broken at some future date) to justify another increase in the debt limit.

The Senate vote went mostly unnoticed because reporters focused instead on the vote on cloture. Every Democrat, aided by 12 Republicans, approved the waiver of budget rules; the roll call is online here.


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Now the House counters by proposing a 1-year delay in Obamacare. Or would their plan delay only part of Obamacare? The difference is crucial.

More confusion and trick plays are coming, so prepare yourself with these excerpts from the Secret Playbook that Congress uses in times like this:

Punt, Pass and Kick

Congress does what football coaches cannot: Changes the rules to extend the game. They buy time, procrastinate.


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Passing short-term legislation is a punt. It briefly takes pressure off politicians by kicking deadlines into the future. Extensions may last just a few days, or several months. Current authority to spend expires October 1st; on Friday the Senate voted to move that to November 15. Since 2001, Congress has passed 50 continuing resolutions that extended spending approval.

They buy bigger chunks of time by raising the debt ceiling. Deficit problems are pushed a year or two into the future by allowing the Treasury to borrow more. We’ve reached the current limit of $16.7 trillion and the Administration has designated October 17 as the date when their accounting gimmicks won’t work anymore. Without raising the debt ceiling, our government must make do with the measly $2.7 trillion it gets from tax collections.

Trick Plays

Football’s trick plays aren’t new and neither are Congress’.

The Senate’s hidden-ball play worked because other votes got all the attention instead of the vote on waiving the budget rules.

Other classic trick plays include:

The Time Shift: A great example is House Speaker John Boehner’s pledge that every dollar of borrowing must be offset “one for one” with a dollar of spending cuts. The $2 trillion borrowed under the 2011 deal is all spent. The spending “cuts,” like the sequester, are actually reductions in growth of spending and not reductions in spending levels. Those cuts are spread out over 10 years.

Calling this “one-for-one” is like trading 100 dollars for 100 pennies. It’s one item for one item, but they’re not equivalent. Promises of future spending cuts are unreliable. But politicians praise them as though they are real and they are spectacular.

Conditional Approvals: Congress will direct that something be done “unless” the president or a Cabinet secretary certifies that it should not be done. Congress brags about advancing projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline, while still letting Presidents do the opposite.

Blue-Ribbon Panels: The last budget deal established a commission with supposed authority to fix budget problems. Except the commission couldn’t get the necessary consensus any better than Congress could. Plus the real authority stayed with Congress anyway.

Procedural Gimmicks: Internal rules are created so the House and/or Senate restricts itself from certain actions. Later they can simply vote to waive these rules. That’s what the Senate did on Friday.

Promote Consolation Prizes

This part of the playbook teaches politicians to treat a loss as at least a moral victory because you get a little something. It’s the equivalent of a football coach who brags after a defeat:

“We got more first downs than they did.”

“We outscored them in the third quarter.”

“At least we weren’t shut out,” or

“I saw some things today that will lead to victories in the future.”

House Republican leaders tested this approach. First they suggested Members should support current spending levels, without de-funding Obamacare, so long as they  got a consolation prize. That got shot down so now it’s hard to tell what revised changes are major and what are minor.

For example:

Delaying the individual mandate:  If the entirety of Obamacare were delayed, it helps the country. Yet if “delaying Obamacare” only means putting off this mandate, it could make Obamacare harder to repeal in the long run. Sure, delaying the individual mandate sounds good. But meantime workers keep losing hours and losing coverage while Obamacare’s other mandates wipe out affordable private insurance.

A mandate delay splits the united opposition and lets the law’s supporters posture as moderates. Fixing an ugly wart doesn’t fix the many things broken by Obamacare.

Eliminate the medical device tax: This placates one segment of Obamacare, putting them to sleep so they’re less likely to support future efforts to repeal or defund the rest of the law.

Medical malpractice reform: Again fixing a wart but ignoring broken bones.

Another consolation prize often offered is language expressing “the intent of Congress” to do something, or requiring the White House “to propose a plan.”

These are political jukes.

It’s like a runner who makes a stutter step or gives a head fake to avoid a tackler. Provisions like these don’t change anything; they just confuse the public.

Watch Out For The Referees

The referees don’t call it fair in this budget game. These refs rarely blow the whistle on Obama and his team. They’re allowed to commit personal fouls, cheap shots, late hits and unnecessary roughness. They can freely accuse Republicans of throwing temper tantrums, being terrorists, arsonists, juvenile, crazy, etc.

In politics, the referees also moonlight as cheerleaders.

Running Out the Clock

Although Congress can buy time, the time advantage remains on Obama’s side. Once millions of Americans are forced to get their health coverage through Obamacare, the law becomes harder than ever to reverse.

The President and Democrats don’t need to score to win. They established their lead when Obamacare was passed in 2010. Because it received ten years of guaranteed money for overhead, the program is not shut down even if other parts of government are.

The Pep Talk

The Left claims that conservatives oppose Obamacare because they fear that it will work. Not so. The fear is that millions of Americans will be trapped in an expensive boondoggle because Obamacare has wiped out their alternatives.

Too many employers have already cancelled coverage. Insurers are still banned from offering policies except the full-featured, high-priced coverge mandated by Obamacare. Delaying other features won’t change this.

Repealing pieces of the law would make it harder to repeal the many bad parts that remained.

Congress is predictable in its legislative stunting, but the current political standoff has no good and easy outcome. And neither does Obamacare itself.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

More from Ernest Istook: Knowing the Inside
 
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Ernest Istook

Ernest Istook spent 25 years in public office, including 14 years in Congress. He was rated one of the top 25 conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then was a Heritage Foundation fellow and a fellow at Harvard's Insitute of Politics, where he led a study group on Propaganda in American Politics Today. 

Now as a radio host and a commentator, Ernest aims to expose Washington's gimmicks--to help you avoid the pitfalls. He brings clarity out of the confusion. 

Native to Texas, Ernest transplanted to Oklahoma after graduating from Baylor University.

Contact Ernest Istook

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