In the current negotiations over the budget cliff, Speaker Boehner is trying to cut a deal with the White House. This has – foreseeably – turned into political posturing from the Democratic side. I propose a quick – but not necessarily simple – strategy for moving forward.
The Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Para 2, states that laws are made in Congress, and then signed (or vetoed) by the president. It also requires that all bills affecting taxes must first be passed in the House. When there are differences between the House and the Senate, a conference committee is supposed to iron out the differences, and a common bill passed, before being sent to the president.
That is exactly the procedure that now should be followed by the House. The Speaker should gather his caucus and decide what broad elements they are willing to stand by. This must be some combination of revenues and budget cuts, preferably including entitlements. Following the precedents in various prior laws, such as Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, the Republican-passed bill could give broad guidelines for what savings will be required in what programs, and then set up bipartisan commissions to iron out the details over the coming six months. Such a bill should be quickly drafted, presented to the House, be passed by a Republican majority, and sent to the Senate. Boehner should then immediately recess the House, and send everyone home.
This places the onus squarely on the Senate. The Senate now has to pass a bill, and, if they do not, the cliff is on them and not on the House. If and when the Senate passes a bill, Boehner can appoint suitable representatives to a conference committee. If that committee agrees on a common bill, the House can be recalled for a vote, and then immediately recess once again. This procedure leaves it to the president. He can offer his inputs to the Senate and/or the conference committee, but that is all.
The point of this proposal is that our Constitution makes it perfectly clear that legislation originates in Congress, in this case in the House, and is then passed to the president. What we see now is an intolerable game of semi-cloaked negotiations played out partly behind closed doors, partly in the media. The Republicans are clearly not winning this game. But sticking to the standard procedures envisioned in the Constitution puts them in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the game.
As an added twist, Boehner should instruct his caucus to pass by acclamation the poison pill that Rep. Pelosi will propose on Tuesday. She has announced that she will present a bill that will extend the tax cuts for the middle class, hoping that the Republicans will vote against it. There is no reason to do that – it’s best just to pass it, and send it to the Senate. That leaves the rest of the issues, and they will be subject to formal proceedings in the Senate. Whatever costs are imposed by the extension of the middle class tax bill can simply be folded into the final bill that Congress sends to the president.
After all, isn’t it the primary responsibility and function of Congress – not the White House – to enact legislation regarding taxes and spending? The above procedure just does what the Constitution requires, no more. Enough already of this strange game where the president is negotiating, and not negotiating, on things not yet passed!
Carl Dahlman is a retired economst. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Income Security Policy in HHS during the Reagan Administration, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Pentagon during the Bush 42 Administration. He was a Senior Economist at the RAND Corporation until 2009. He has taught economics at Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg. He is a naturalized American from Sweden, and his particular interests are public choice and law and economics.