John E. Sununu

Getting to ‘yes’ with budget nay-sayers

By John E. Sununu
February 14, 2011

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WHO IS Kent Conrad? No, he’s not the mysterious figure of the Ayn Rand novel, “Atlas Shrugged,’’ struggling beneath the weight of a government that suppresses the forces of innovation — that would be John Galt. But over the next three months, as the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee attempts to pass a budget through a sharply divided Senate, he may well feel like Atlas, with the weight of the world, or at least a few trillion in taxpayers’ money, sitting squarely on his shoulders.

Senate Budget Committee chairman easily qualifies as one of the most frustrating jobs in Congress. The chairman shepherds the passage of a budget resolution that guides and limits government spending of all kinds during the coming year. Without the resolution, Congress is flying blind, with little chance of meeting spending targets, and no chance of passing long-term reforms to big-ticket items like Social Security and Medicare. Ever hear the phrase “herding cats’’? Imagine trying to herd cats with egos, reelection campaigns, and presidential ambitions.

The feline cattle drive begins with today’s release of the president’s budget. Strip away the fanfare, and you have a 1,000-page document dropped off at the Capitol with a handshake and best wishes. Conrad has two-dozen senators on his committee, many of them newly elected. Asking them to assemble a $3.5 trillion budget resolution looks like a mismatch from the start.

This undertaking is further complicated by the fact that the budget committees tend to be populated by ideologues on both sides. As a member of the House Budget Committee, I remember several mark-ups that looked like a game of “can you top this?’’ Each side takes turns offering amendments that they think will be impossible for their counterparts to oppose. It’s hard to run a serious hearing when committee members are daydreaming about the nasty ads awaiting them if they vote against a funding increase for grandmothers, veterans, or infants.

An even deeper level of difficulty lies in the politics of budgets when they hit the full Senate. Conrad, who represents North Dakota, is fiscally more conservative than many of his Democrat colleagues. He will find them reluctant to embrace the spending cuts and reforms he prefers. Republicans, for their part, will be very circumspect about providing support unless the reductions go further than most Democrats are willing to endorse. Budget resolutions are not bipartisan events. With 23 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2012, finding 51 votes on the Senate floor will be a brutal and thankless chore.

And for sheer complexity, it is hard to match the law that governs the entire process. Written nearly 40 years ago, the Budget Act is full of good intentions, but reads like something written by lawyers for accountants. While it is one of the few times that the Senate rules limit debate, there is no restriction on the number of amendments. This creates a frantic window once debate time has expired as members bring forward amendment after amendment to be voted upon in rapid succession — a phenomenon that has come to be known as “vote-a-rama.’’ (I once presided over the Senate for eight consecutive hours during one such free-for-all.)

Although complexity and politics are always part of the budget debate, this year includes an added element of emotion, beginning with anger. Now, all anger is relative, and Kent Conrad is one of the most even-tempered people I know. But he is angry with House Republicans for focusing too much on cutting non-defense spending, and ignoring overdue reforms of Medicare and Social Security. And he is disappointed with the president for failing to support the recommendations of last fall’s deficit reduction commission. With the retirement of Senator Judd Gregg, Conrad’s alter ego on the Budget Committee for the past six years, the road ahead got a bit lonelier as well.

As an engineering student at MIT, I became very fond of the phrase “misery builds character.’’ For Kent Conrad, all the pieces have come together for what promises to be a character-building experience: numbers, politics, egos, and a national imperative — all sized extra large. Against this backdrop, failure to produce a budget resolution would set the stage for a year-long running battle, with intensity peaking every time a bill hits the floor to fund programs ranging from high-speed rail to “green jobs’’ — investments to some, pork and subsidies to others.

In the climactic chapter of “Atlas Shrugged,’’ John Galt famously lets loose with a speech that runs 70 pages — about three hours if read aloud — decrying the ills of a government that manipulates individual behavior, commercial activity, and other aspects of freedom. Conrad may be a bit more plain spoken, but as the budget process approaches stalemate, expect him to let forth with a few well-timed outbursts of his own. We should hope that they won’t be Galtian in length, but Conrad does have one advantage: when Galt spoke, it wasn’t clear who might be listening; when Conrad speaks, he at least has the president’s ear.

John E. Sununu, whose column appears regularly in the Globe, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.