TYRRELL: A penalty for Harry

Dereliction of budgetary duty may carry costs

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A couple of weeks ago, I elaborated on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had at the time failed for three straight years to write up a budget in the Senate, thereby breaking the law three — now four — years running. I said he should write up a budget in part to inform the citizenry how their tax dollars are being spent. How much was going to the Pentagon and our nation’s security? How much was going into green fantasies like Solyndra and payoffs to the Democratic Party’s friends? That would be friendly fascism, the left’s post-liberalism evolutionary stage. Some call it Obamaism.

Where is the accountability? Failing to write up a budget is a dereliction of duty. At the time, I speculated ever so gently about what sort of crime Harry was committing. Everyone agrees that not writing up a budget is a crime. Is it a felony or a mere misdemeanor? I innocently joked that senators from Nevada are not known for committing mere misdemeanors. Now, having spent two weeks studying Harry’s case and counseling with members of Congress — past and present — I think I am closer to excogitating a penalty for the wretched Harry.

The law we are referring to is the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which was passed to override President Richard M. Nixon’s veto of those expenditures in the federal budget of which he did not approve. He called it impoundment. His high-minded opponents responded that it was an extravagant extension of what was then called the “imperial presidency.” Today I suppose we call it Obamacare or rule by executive order. To the Democrats, it is very progressive.

At any rate, the 1974 law was written in a more innocent era. It was the time of Watergate and impeachment. In those more easygoing days, members of Congress could not imagine themselves coldly and with malice aforethought breaking the law. Thus, they would not bring embarrassment to Congress by even suggesting penalties. Today, we live in a more ruthless era. There are sitting in the Senate people who would deny the citizenry the simple illuminating document of a federal budget.

I am indebted to Kimberly Strassel, the insightful Washington columnist for The Wall Street Journal, for her learned explication of Harry’s obduracy. According to her, he is failing to submit a budget because, in keeping with the perverse ways of the capital, his failure keeps the focus of the press and the politicians on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The press and the partisan pols focus on what the House accomplishes rather than focusing on the Senate’s derelictions. Thus, official Washington is hysterical over the House’s threat to go over the “fiscal cliff” or its refusal to raise the debt ceiling, rather than the Senate’s repeated violations of the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act. Furthermore, by refusing to write up a budget, Harry’s Senate continues to keep his Democratic members’ true identities hidden from the voters back home. Are they for lavish spending and draconian tax increases? Are they for gun control? Do they want Big Bird reading the evening news on public television? Who knows? They have not voted on a budget. How do the Democratic senators spend their time? No one in Washington seems to care.

Now the industrious Republican members of the House of Representatives have come up with yet another plan for dealing with our fiscal mess and for getting the Democrats in the Senate on record with a budget. The House voted Wednesday to suspend the debt ceiling at least until May 19. However, the House measure also insists that both chambers of Congress write up a budget by April 15. If one or the other chamber does not submit a budget, its members’ pay will be held up until the end of the congressional session, January 2015. The Senate’s millionaires and billionaires will not mind, or will they? It can be very expensive in Washington, even living on a millionaire’s income. One of the added benefits of the Republicans’ strategy is to demonstrate to the popolo minuto how very well off the Senate Democrats are.

In the meantime, I have prevailed upon former House member Bob Barr to investigate how we can put teeth into that 1974 law that Harry has broken four times. We may have to replace the Budget and Impoundment Control Act with a new statute, but, Harry, we are serious. I will not allow Mr. Barr to include hard labor among the new penalties, but my compassion for Harry can only go so far.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

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