- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Good news normally gets the silent treatment in the “Mainstream Media.” And it’s often totally submerged if it’s about Republicans. So it’s no surprise that when the House and Senate passed the fiscal 2006 budget resolution conference report a couple of weeks ago, parched Hill observers had to strain to find droplets of coverage in an ocean of tales of alleged scandal and political conflagration.

Yet despite the media’s “silent spring” on budget matters, the agreement promises a fruitful harvest for Republicans this autumn as they try to govern. “It not only lays out a roadmap for the rest of the year, but it gives us the tools we need to keep our fiscal house in order,” House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle of Iowa told me last week. “It makes a lot of tough decisions a little easier down the road. Particularly for our friends in the Senate, where having a budget blueprint takes some things that were probably impossible and puts them into the realm of possibility,” he said.

Mr. Nussle agrees the budget success got short shrift. “It’s definitely good news and that’s why it got ignored,” he said. Lost in the icy media coverage, though, are a variety of provisions that should warm the hearts of conservatives.

First, the budget sets an overall limit on discretionary spending — the legislation funded by annual appropriations bills. This overall cap of $843.02 billion, known as the 302(a) allocation, is divided up among the appropriations sub-committees, which produce the specific spending bills’ 302(b) allocations. Without a budget, new spending is easily added (only a simple majority of 51 votes is required) to pass these bills when they come to the Senate floor. But once a budget is in place, amendments that add more than specified in the 302(b) allocations are subject to a 60-vote point of order. Lawmakers have tried other ways to impose fiscal discipline without a budget resolution, but the process gets much more difficult. Instituting this kind of spending restraint is critical to achieving the goal of reducing the federal budget deficit by half in five years.

Beyond fiscal discipline, the agreement means the appropriations process actually has a chance to get done on time this year and without a costly year-end omnibus spending bill.

Second, the budget authorizes the use of the so-called “reconciliation” process to achieve policy goals in three other critical areas — restraining mandatory spending, extending tax cuts and facilitating debt management. Reconciliation triggers expedited procedures in the Senate, the most important being a 51-vote threshold for passing any legislation considered under this process.

This all but guarantees that important conservative policy initiatives, such as curbing entitlement spending on Medicaid and farm programs, as well as certain pension reforms and even authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, can be rolled into a reconciliation bill and pass the Senate with 51 votes — precluding the Democrats’ ability to filibuster.

The same procedure can be used for a separate bill that extends until 2010 a variety of tax measures set to expire over the next five years. And if necessary, the budget authorizes a third reconciliation bill that could be used to raise the debt ceiling — another political hot potato that Democrats have in the past threatened to stall in order to embarrass Republicans.

So the budget creates three separate legislative vehicles that can package and immunize critical policy changes from the tentacles of obstruction and filibuster. Moreover, while no one knows the response to Republicans reinstituting the majority-rule precedent on judicial nominees, these reconciliation measures could still move because of the special procedures attached to them — even if liberals try to impose a nuclear freeze in the Senate.

Achieving a budget agreement will pay huge dividends to Republicans in the months ahead, helping to shepherd a legislative agenda, achieving spending control and thwarting Democratic delaying tactics. While editors may believe lawmakers ripping eachother apart sells more papers or boosts viewership, the budget agreement takes a big bite out of the Democrats’ obstructionist arsenal, while gnawing away at the deficit. It’s prosaic for the press, but procedurally powerful, creating a glide path to governing. It’s too bad the media missed one of the significant political stories of the year.

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