At 4:24 am last Friday the Senate called it a night (or morning). Shortly before, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” quit deliberating, bringing its “vote-a-rama” session to a merciful end. “Deliberation” doesn’t apply very well here. When the Senate takes up its annual budget resolution and an around-the-clock offering of amendments it is anything but “long and careful consideration or discussion,” as defined in Oxford.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) coached visiting constituents on Wednesday morning that this was great time to see the Senate from the gallery. The senator was right to the extent that one doesn’t often get a chance to see a majority of Members on the floor for an extended period of time. As promised, she and her colleagues were there touting and voting on amendments to the FY 2016 Budget Resolution in a rare display of a constant quorum in search of a budget framework. Probably more than a few of them were also in search of an expeditious deliverance from what at times has the appearance of an exhausting, even pointless, legislative exercise.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 is serious business, much like its cousin, H. Con. Res. 27, which on Wednesday the House of Representatives dispatched in far fewer bleary-eyed hours. When/if the process is concluded, the Congress will have a single congressional budget resolution—no White House signature needed, thank you—that sets enforceable limits on appropriations in broad categories, e.g. transportation, for the next fiscal year. It is a budget discipline that Congress created in 1974.
In this case, both chambers and their Republican majorities last week produced resolutions that maintain the increasingly constrictive caps and the across-the-board cuts of sequestration of the infamous Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). Both resolutions project balanced budgets in ten years. Both put downward pressure on spending for non-defense and defense discretionary (non-entitlement) programs. But both, ultimately, also create exceptions so as to boost defense spending above the BCA ceiling that John McCain (R-AZ) called “reckless” and “a disaster” in his attempt to end the grip of sequestration on the DOD side of the ledger.
There are differences between the Senate and House resolutions, which may be resolved in conference between the two budget committees.
So, you might ask, what exactly is a “vote-a-rama” in the US Senate?” In large part, it is a chance for a large number of amendments to be taken up in a short amount of time. Everybody, in theory, has the opportunity to shape the broad framework for spending. Well, not really. It might better be described as rapid-fire amendments so one can go on record—or put the other guy on record—for or against something. Standard Senate rules are put aside for purposes of budget resolution consideration. No chance to spend 20 minutes airing an issue or in orderly exchanges with a colleague over some weighty matter. Instead, senators mostly were asked to vote on vaguely worded issue proxies that have little practical effect on spending decisions or the issues themselves.
Serious subjects may be raised but a senator has a minute to state her case, assuming her amendment—one of nearly 800 introduced—is among the few that actually get floor time. Some are approved without objection, others rejected or agreed to by recorded vote. Some are withdrawn—the point already made—or ruled out of order.
Susan Collins (R-ME) said “the process gets misused just to make the other side cast uncomfortable votes,” adding that “the budget should be a serious process…” One didn’t have to look far for a handy example, this one covering two political hot buttons in one amendment. A senator wanted to “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to limiting the ability of Environmental Protection Agency personnel to carry guns.” The italicized phrase is the common form used in the amendments, helping make it pertinent to the budget resolution and within its dollar limits.
Where any subjects of relevance to the port/logistics world proposed in the wearying session last week? Yes.
Two proposed amendments were inspired by the recent West Coast longshore talks and slowdown. One was by Deb Fisher (R-NE) relating to a request that has been (or will be) made for the GAO to investigate “the impact of service disruptions at West Coast ports during 2014 and 2015.” The other was by Cory Gardner (R-CO) with the notion “to prevent labor disputes at seaports in the United States from causing national economic disruptions and crippling businesses across the United States.” Neither would have practical effect beyond perhaps establishing Senate sentiment as to what took place during the longshore negotiations. (No vote)
Deb Fisher, chair of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee, and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the Environment & Public Works Committee, sponsored an amendment to “strengthen waterborne commerce in our ports and harbors, which may include increasing the percentage of the amounts expended from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that are dedicated to port infrastructure and maintenance.” What does that mean? They associated themselves with the notion of increasing O&M spending from the HMTF. Nothing more. (Adopted)
A freight-related amendment by Dean Heller (R-NV) aspires to ensure that the DOT Secretary prioritize “the construction of projects that are of national and regional significance and projects in high priority corridors on the National Highway System…” (Adopted)
In the same vein, Cory Booker (D-NJ) sought to “encourage freight planning and investment that incorporates all modes of transportation, including rail, waterways, ports, and highways to promote national connectivity.” (Adopted)
A Gary Peters (D-MI) amendment related “to supporting trade and travel at ports of entry.” (Adopted)
Patty Murray (D-WA) called for increasing funding for the TIGER grant program. (Adopted)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed one “to ensure high-income earners pay a fair share in taxes and to use the revenue to invest in repairing our Nation’s bridges, coastal infrastructure, and damage from wildfires.” (Withdrawn)
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got a vote on his amendment relating to EPA regulation of “greenhouse gas emissions, which may include a prohibition on withholding highway funds from States that refuse to submit State Implementation Plans required under the Clean Power Plan of the Agency.” (Adopted 57-43)
Today EPA’s Gina McCarthy today said, no problem, Senator. “EPA doesn’t have the legal authority” to do that anyway.