Many of the responses I’ve gotten to my article on the Republican plan to use the debt ceiling as leverage to force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass a budget have been along these lines: If it is against the law for Congress not to pass a budget (and it is), and if Harry Reid is violating that law (and he is), then why can’t something be done about it? Why can’t Reid be charged with something? Or perhaps a lawsuit be brought?
The answer is the law requiring Congress to pass an annual budget, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism. Lawmakers are required by law to pass a budget each year by April 15, but there’s no provision to punish them, or even slightly inconvenience them, if they don’t. In Reid’s case, the Senate last passed a budget in April 2009, 1,351 days ago as of Wednesday.
“The law doesn’t have teeth,” says a Senate aide involved in the fight. “Sen. Sessions and others have proposed process reforms to give the budget law teeth (one reform would make it harder to pass spending bills without a budget), but the debt ceiling is the strongest leverage we have on this. This is the opportunity.”
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In other words, it is precisely because the budget law has no enforcement provision that Republicans believe they need some other form of leverage, in this case the debt ceiling deadline, to force Reid and his fellow Democrats to move. In addition, whatever happens in the debt ceiling standoff, it seems clear that the original budget law should be amended to include some sort of enforcement method.
Meanwhile, the White House responded to the Republican proposal for the first time Tuesday, and the response was: forget about it. “Congress — the Senate, the House — should act to raise the debt ceiling,” spokesman Jay Carney said. “This is not…a negotiation the White House is going to have. It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that the bills Congress racked up are paid.”
There’s no way to know precisely how the debt ceiling fight will play out, other than to say in the end the debt ceiling will ultimately be raised. But surely one result should be a strengthening of the requirement that Congress pass a budget. It would seem unnecessary — after all, it is a core constitutional responsibility of lawmakers — but Harry Reid has made a new, stronger law a real priority.