Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, used the threat of the Democrats taking back the Senate by invoking fears of a Senate Budget Committee chaired by the Independent Senator, and Democratic Presidential Candidate from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Watching Mr. Ryan the past few years, he’s had to balance on many different political tightropes. Having to endure President Obama’s State of the Union addresses with unmitigated stoicism, running for Vice President with Mormon and 47% voter resentment candidate, Governor Mitt Romney, keeping his distance from Donald Trump’s worst scandals and gaffes, while insisting he is supporting his party’s choice for President…and kind of pulling it off. He’s done a pretty good job of keeping his clothes clean, while attempting to lead the mess that is the Republican party. Though if you are a Republican, you have to consider whether this is a real threat and if it could even come to fruition. You also have to wonder what Bernie’s role would be if he were selected to be Chair of the Senate Budget Committee. Is it really that simple?
First of all, is Bernie even guaranteed this position? The answer is exactly “No”. Many things would need to happen before the Democrats would be able to be in a position to nominate Committee Chairs to begin with.
- They would have to win the Senate majority back from the Republicans
- Harry Reid (who went out of his way to help Hillary win Nevada) is retiring and will not seek reelection. So the new, yet to be named, Party Majority Leader would have to appoint Bernie to the position
- There is nothing in the Constitution that binds anyone to appoint any particular Senator to the head of anything. Previous to the 1970’s, these positions were assigned using the Seniority Rule where seniority was the determining factor. They were automatically assigned until there was a “revolt” from the younger members that led to both parties being allowed to vote on their committee chairs. Today, seniority remains the general rule for selecting chairs, but there have been many exceptions.
- There are no formal rules, so it’s entirely up to the party leadership. These rules can all be changed at the party’s whim and we can do little about it (aside from voting, which is debatable on its effectiveness given the two party duopoly, but that’s for another time)
Let’s assume, for the sake of this article, that the Democrats (despite their best efforts) win the Senate back. The next Senate Pro Tempore selected has always (well, let’s go with “uninterrupted since 1949“) been the most senior member of the Senate for the ruling party. Currently this would be Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.
I know what you’re thinking…”Hey, wouldn’t a Democratic Senator from Vermont be all but compelled to play ball with his cohort from the same state? Wouldn’t he be at risk of angering the Vermont voters he needs for his own reelection?”
You’d think that, but one has to wonder how much fear Leahy has from voter retribution when he already ignored his home state’s overwhelming support for Sanders during the primaries (they voted 86.1% for Bernie), and was one of Hillary’s unwavering pledged Super Delegates from start to finish. However, to the trusting optimist, this is a perfect scenario for Bernie to get exactly what he would be promised.
Side Note: We are unaware of any actual promises to Bernie Sanders from the Hillary campaign. In fact, many of these promises would be considered illegal. Something no Democrat, or Republican would ever do. Try to suspend your beliefs for a few moments regarding this hypothetical, “Paul Ryan Creepy Nightmare Fueled Tragedy” if you can.
So, while Paul Ryan is enjoying this scare tactic to keep his party’s Senate majority, there are no guarantees on who is appointed as a Committee Chair. The Budget Committee is no different. The advantage for Bernie to be elected to this position is that he is the current “Ranking Member” of the committee. This is who the minority party elects to be their leader of the committee. Though as we will discuss, it’s the Committee Chair, and their majority of party representatives, that have the real power in a particular committee or subcommittee.
If everything goes according to Speaker Ryan’s spooky prognostications, Bernie would be in a great position to be a thorn in the side of any tax cuts that are too aggressive or tax hikes that are too extraneous. He would be able to protect a lot of programs and appropriations that exist, however, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities PDF found on their website entitled, “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process”, there are several ways that any individual in the Senate can raise a budget “point of order” on the floor to block such legislation. In the House, these points of order can be easily defeated by a simple majority, however, in the Senate, they carry much more weight. A budget “point of order” requires 60 Senate votes to override.
By the way, if you are desperate to read this enthralling policy PDF, but are short on time, (or perhaps you recently finished getting your MBA with mountains of debt, thinking one of your newly gained entitlements is to have policy PDF’s summarized for you instead of reading them) go ahead and skip to the Conclusion found at the bottom of the document.
So what power would this role really give to the Independent Senator from Vermont?
What problems could he cause for Republicans?
For the generations of Americans that are still scared of that historically notorious word known as “SOCIALISM“?
So many directions we could go on the last question, but for those of you already beginning to glaze over reading or hearing about budgets and government procedural talk, we’ll leave that one alone this time.
To begin with, we should go over some of the basic Committee Chair’s privileges and duties.
To briefly summarize, the primary privilege of any Committee Chair is that they get to set the agenda. They also get to set the topics for informative hearings which determines what a good amount of Congressional time is spent on. These Chairs also have certain tools at their disposal to help garner their preferred policy outcomes.
- They get a large say on who is on their committee, though not always the final word.
- According to Budget.Senate.gov, there are 12 Majority members and 10 Minority members assigned to the Budget Committee. This type of majority allows the party in control of the Senate to get many of their preferred policy outcomes through their various committees and subcommittees, and to a Senate floor vote to pass.
- They are entitled to use the “Chairman’s Mark“. Which has best been described as the first draft of legislation introduced by the chairman of a committee that is then debated and amended by committee colleagues. This ability to decide the starting point for all further work on this piece of legislation is an important part of the chair’s power.
These powers do not necessarily allow Bernie to be a “problem” to either party, but he does get to be a gatekeeper of sorts. “Nothing gets past Old Man Bernie”, they’ll say…well except for the key master.
There is a responsibility of the Budget Committee to oversee the House and Senate on budgetary issues, and they work on approving and passing the President’s annual budget, but there are actually some other committees that have more to do with Bernie’s core Presidential platform. Some of the issues that he ran on for President included expanding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with some other so-called “entitlements”.
The Budget Committee is often confused with the Finance Committee and the Appropriations Committee. For example, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid legislation is handled by the Finance Committee. They also deal with tariffs and reciprocal trade agreements like the TPP and NAFTA.
The Appropriations Committee has legislative jurisdiction over appropriations bills, which provide funding for government programs and the discretionary spending legislation. They are among the most powerful of all the committees, largely due to having jurisdiction and control over budgets for the other committees. They vote on all the mandatory and discretionary spending, which encompasses the entire Federal Budget.
So, Bernie’s committee sets out a broad blueprint for the Congress with respect to the total levels of revenues and spending for the government as a whole. These other two committees prepare the legislation that actually enacts specific tax and spending policies. Basically setting and enforcing limits for each department to spend. These limits, like many things, can also be overturned with a vote of 60 Senators.
It goes without saying, Bernie could have had a much easier time working against the bad trade deals and Social Security and Medicare, from the Executive Branch. However, now, he must rely on the word of Hillary Clinton and her Democrat colleagues, (especially if Donald Trump somehow wins a national election without the support of minorities or women) to award him a position of power within their Senate after they no longer need him. He also will have to try to enact his Progressive ideals from a position where his reach and leverage may be limited if he is shut out of all such leadership roles in the Senate by Democrats. On the other hand, if they were to take care of Bernie and place him in the position of Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, he would become an even more powerful Senator than ever before.
This ends up being highly contingent on the Democrats even wanting someone they lamented as not being one of their own, having any power over their policy plans and budget proposals.
I want to know what you think about the following:
- Do you think the Democrats will reward Bernie for getting in line behind Hillary with a position like Chairman of the Budget Committee?
- Do you think Sen. Patrick Leahy will be willing to take the blame in his state, for his party, if they lock Bernie out?
- If Bernie is appointed to Chair, do you think he will be able to better fight Republicans and reign in Corporate Democrats?
- Will they be able to keep Bernie away from the Committees that handle Social Security and Trade Deals? Or will his position allow him to influence these issues despite apparent jurisdiction?
- Does Bernie have any leverage in his current position and would that be made greater or lessened by promoting him to Chair of the Budget Committee?
Grab some kettle-corn and pay close attention in the coming months. It should be interesting to see how this Sanders political strategy pays off for him.