- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

If passing laws is like making sausage, the legislative meat grinder churned out a big salami last week. Congress passed a budget blueprint after days of parliamentary wrangling, satisfying even the most voracious bratwurst lover's appetite.
In the end, the House and Senate hammered out a complicated and unprecedented conference committee agreement, including a $550 billion growth package kind of. Despite bumps getting there, last week's parliamentary gymnastics had a silver lining. They demonstrated that using procedure and majority power wisely can create the conditions for long-term political victory, even if short-term circumstances look bleak.
The budget compromise directs the House to pass a growth plan of $550 billion, but includes an exception saying the Senate cannot produce legislation greater than $350 billion without mustering 60 votes a key concession necessary to win Republican moderate support. Yet, to garner House GOP backing, it adds an important twist. The agreement leaves the door open for a compromise as high as $550 billion in a House-Senate conference that the Senate could adopt with 51 votes, according to the parliamentarian.
Yet, after bleary-eyed House committee members passed the budget Friday morning at around 3:00 a.m., some Senate moderates still balked. They demanded assurances from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley that he would never agree to a $550 billion growth package. He reluctantly acceded. So, here we are. The legislation says a $550 billion package can pass the Senate with 51 votes, but it is not clear how to get there yet.
Despite the disappointing outcome for advocates of a larger growth package, Republican control of the levers of power averted a bigger problem. Last year's debacle, when Democrats in the Senate refused to compromise with Republicans on an overall fiscal blueprint, is a case in point. This year, Republicans controlled the agenda and the procedure in both bodies. They massaged various compromises in each body until a solution emerged. They took the steps to pass the budget in each chamber, while maintaining future flexibility.
Completing a budget will pay dividends to Republicans later this year. It keeps other legislative priorities on track, creates a road map for fiscal restraint and the possibility of a growth package larger than $350 billion down the road.
Rep. John Dingell, who knows the power of controlling the process, summed it up well a number of years ago, when he said, "If you let me write the procedure, and I let you write the substance, I'll [beat] you every time." Smart use of the process allowed narrow majorities in the House and Senate to avert stalemate.
Second, the dynamics of the process change once Congress begins discussing specific proposals and adding tax provisions sought by lawmakers. The debate becomes less about a number and more about lawmakers getting invested in the process. "A tax conference committee is a more favorable venue to produce a number above $350 billion," one former Republican leadership aide said. The conference decision makers will include House and Senate Republicans and the White House. All have the incentives to provide the president and congressional Republicans a win.
Finally, this "kick the can" budget, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert called it, has another positive aspect more time. A Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee said recently: "We were all caught a little flat-footed with the President's dividend proposal. We're just learning how to talk about it." He's right, and with more time, lawmakers become increasingly comfortable articulating the merits of the proposal. It also gives advocates a chance to convince more voters about the merits of tax cuts. Several recent polls suggest that only about 30 percent of Americans believe tax cuts are the best form of economic stimulus. Boosting that number will serve as yeast to help political support rise.
More time also gives the president a chance to make the case for an economic growth plan. That process began this week, with the president hosting a Rose Garden event on the economy and administration officials fanning out across the country, beginning a two-week blitz advocating tax cuts and economic growth. With the war in Iraq winding down, the White House can now focus more attention on a domestic agenda. As one presidential aide said, "We will now do whatever it takes to get the economy growing and create jobs."
Republican control of the congressional sausage-maker did not produce the economic growth plan the White House originally proposed. History shows that lawmakers rarely do exactly what the president asks. Yet, through agenda control, shifting the debate to a more favorable venue and buying more time, the sausage machine did something else. It saved the growth plan's bacon at least for the time-being allowing the congressional meat-grinder more time to produce much-needed tax cut sustenance for the American economy.

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