Tuesday marks the 1,350th day since the Senate passed a budget. The law requires Congress to pass a budget every year, on the grounds that Americans deserve to know how the government plans to spend the trillions of taxpayer dollars it collects, along with dollars it borrows at the taxpayers' expense. But Majority Leader Harry Reid, who last allowed a budget through the Senate in April 2009, has ignored the law since then.
There's no mystery why. The budget passed by large Democratic majorities in the first months of the Obama administration had hugely elevated levels of spending in it. By not passing a new spending plan since, Reid has in effect made those levels the new budgetary baseline. Congress has kept the government going with continuing resolutions based on the last budget signed into law.
While Reid has forbidden action, the House has passed budgets as required. Senate Democrats have been highly critical of those budgets, designed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. But under Reid's leadership, Democrats have steadfastly refused to come up with a plan of their own.
The situation is deeply frustrating for many Republicans. Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has conducted a virtual crusade on the issue, loudly and consistently and unsuccessfully demanding that Reid obey the law and pass a budget. Now, with a fight over the debt ceiling approaching, Sessions wants to try something new.
"I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent," Sessions told me Monday in a phone conversation from his home in Alabama. "If the government wants to borrow money so it can spend more, then the government ought to tell the Congress and the American people how they will spend it."
There are no specific proposals yet, but under this scenario Republicans would insist on a debt ceiling agreement that includes (among other things) a requirement that Congress pass a budget by a specific date. If that doesn't happen, there would be some sort of enforcement mechanism, perhaps an arrangement whereby the debt ceiling was lowered, or one in which Congress would have to muster a supermajority to raise it again.
One problem, of course, is that the law already requires Congress to pass a budget, and Reid has violated that. Why would he abide by a mere agreement between lawmakers? Sessions did not want to go into many specifics on enforcement, but it seems clear from talking to him, as well as others on Capitol Hill, that the plan would have a better chance of success if it had the united support of Republicans in both Senate and House.
House GOP sources favor the idea -- it has "great merit and appeal," said one -- but they stress it is still in the early discussion stage. On the other hand, Speaker John Boehner seemed to be thinking along the same lines as Sessions in a recent conversation with the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore, who wrote that Boehner "will insist that Harry Reid and Senate Democrats pass a budget -- something they haven't done in nearly four years -- before proceeding."
Sessions, whose budget campaign has been lonely at times, says in the past Republican leaders have "failed to understand the significance of this issue." Indeed, it took them a while to even figure out what was going on. To many in the GOP, it was hard to believe that anyone would seriously disagree with the idea that Congress should tell the American people what it intends to do with, say, the next $3.7 trillion it spends. And yet some Democrats, Reid among them, obviously do.
As Sessions sees it, Reid's budget gambit is the result of a long-term plan. "It's not a failure of leadership," Sessions said. "This is part of the president's political tactics. There's no doubt in my mind that the White House and the Senate leadership calculated that the lumps they would take for not producing a budget were preferable to actually exposing their financial plan for the future."
Indeed, it's true that Reid, Obama, and Democrats in general have not suffered much adverse public opinion for their refusal to pass a budget. But by raising the issue's profile as part of the debt-ceiling fight, Sessions and many Republicans hope that is about to change.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.