Budget Process Rules the Senate

As noted on these pages many times over the last few months, the Senate is unique in its traditions and rules. One feature that helped earn the Senate the title of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” is its rules that allow for, and even necessitate, policy debates, which are a vital part of the legislative process. These rules push the Senate to work out differences between conflicting legislative proposals and help ensure that the voice of the minority is protected. To extend this principle to tax and spending issues, the Senate has special rules.

One of these budget process rules requires the approval of a “super-majority,” or 60 members, to pass legislation authorizing any new expenditures, whether caused by cutting taxes or adding new mandatory spending legislation not provided for in the previous budget resolution. Another budget enforcement rule is the Senate's “pay-as-you-go” (or “pay-go”) rule that requires 60 votes to pass tax cuts or mandatory spending legislation that would require use of the “off-budget” Social Security surplus. These rules, along with those requiring adherence to pre-set budget caps on discretionary spending, will expire tomorrow, October 1, 2002, unless they are renewed before then.

There is currently an effort in the Senate to extend the super-majority and pay-go rules for one additional year. Previous attempts this year to renew the budget enforcement rules would have made them effective for five years, and included budget caps. However, because of the inability to agree on the amount of budget caps, the provision was scaled down. This effort to renew the super-majority and pay-go rules is being spearheaded by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Russell Feingold (D-WI), and has the support of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS).

Though the measure appears to have broad support in the Senate (60 votes are also needed for it to pass), there are rumors that some senators will work to block it, with the hope that, without the required “super-majority” in the way, they will be able to push through efforts to make permanent costly tax cuts, such as the estate tax (see related article). As you might recall, the June Gramm-Kyl proposal to make the estate tax permanent did not succeed because the 60-vote supermajority rule was in effect.

This issue is expected to come up within the next day or two. You can contact your Senators to support extension of the super-majority rule by clicking here and entering your zip code in the “Federal Officials” box.

For more on these rules and what their expiration could mean for upcoming issues as diverse as estate tax repeal, Social Security and future appropriations, see this OMB Watch analysis.

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