Politics & Policy

Conrad the Scrivener

Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota
The senator just can’t be bothered to pass a budget.

Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. That means he’s the Democratic point man for the absolutely essential work of not coming up with a budget.

Conrad has occasionally gone wobbly. Sometimes he has sounded dangerously close to betraying the cause that his party has entrusted to him. A couple of weeks ago, the senator went on national TV to say he was going to have his committee “mark up” what he called a “ten-year plan” — i.e., a budget. After briefly flirting with this treachery, Conrad came back to his senses and recommitted himself to his duty to remain resolutely budgetless.

In the end, he didn’t hold a markup, which is the time-honored process by which a bill is debated, amended, and voted on. Conrad dispensed with all such fluff and minutiae. He offered his own plan, loosely based on the work of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission, shot down any foolishness about amending or voting, and pronounced himself well-pleased. Despite the angst he had caused with his loose talk, Conrad had delivered yet again — by not delivering a budget.

#ad#If this seems an easy, almost no-show job to you, think again. There are two varieties of budgetary boldness. There’s bold like Republican House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. This involves passing out of committee detailed budget resolutions that go on to pass the entire chamber and to spark a full and frank debate about the nation’s fiscal future. Then there’s Kent Conrad boldness. This involves having the fortitude to defend doing nothing with threadbare rationalizations and weaselly misdirections.

Fresh from his stalwart act of nonbudgeting, Senator Conrad said it was too hard to pass a budget in an election year. But Senate Democrats hadn’t passed one in 2010 or 2011, either. This year is a presidential election year, 2011 was an off-year, and 2010 was a midterm-election year. That covers every kind of year there is in Washington. By this standard, the Senate will have an annual excuse not to pass a budget resolution for the rest of time.

Conrad argued that the debt-ceiling compromise earlier this year, the so-called Budget Control Act, obviated any need to pass a budget resolution. Then what explains the AWOL Senate budgets of 2010 and 2011?

The debt deal set some broad spending levels for the next two years in the discretionary part of the budget, but it is silent on revenues, entitlements, and other mandatory spending. It also has a blunderbuss sequester provision that everyone wants to avoid. If the budget deal really were a substitute for a budget resolution, Paul Ryan wouldn’t have bothered to come up with another one this year, and House Democrats wouldn’t have countered with resolutions of their own.

The 1974 Budget Act says that, as a matter of law, the Senate Budget Committee is to pass a resolution by April 1 and Congress as a whole to pass one by April 15. No matter. Kent Conrad is the Bartleby the Scrivener of budgeting: He prefers not to.

The chairman’s exertions, such as they are, serve the political interests of his master, Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The leader doesn’t want the fingerprints of Senate Democrats on a budget. What possible upside is there in telling the public, in some detail, how they will address the country’s grave fiscal challenges? This gambit, a running charade for years now, betrays the intellectual exhaustion of the last remaining Democratic majority on Capitol Hill — too scared and too cynical to undertake even a rudimentary gesture toward governing.

As for Senator Kent Conrad, he is retiring at the end of the year. As a private citizen, he will be able to look back fondly at the extraordinary capstone of his 25-year career during this period, when he literally set a new standard for success for chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee. Bravo, Mr. Chairman, bravo.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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