In what has become a rarity over the past few years, the Senate narrowly passed a budget before recessing for Easter – the first time the chamber has done so since 2009. While Congress waited for the President to present his blueprint for the nation’s finances, which was finally released two months late, both chambers had already moved forward and passed their respective budgets (click here to read more about the President’s failure to submit a budget on time). However, the Senate dominated the headlines because it had not considered a budget resolution since 2009. After resolving 101 amendments over 13 continuous hours of voting, and working well into the early hours of a Saturday morning, the Senate passed their fiscal year 2014 (FY2014) budget at 4:56 a.m., on a 50-49 vote.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Reid often limits the number of amendments by filling the amendment tree. However, budget resolutions are the rare time that that Senators of both parties can offer an unlimited number of amendments. By law, all amendments offered must be dispensed with before final passage. Known as a “vote-a-rama,” this unique occurrence allows for amendments to be brought up for consideration and voted on in succession after the time for debate has expired.
Budget resolutions operate under unique rules, established by public law. Budget resolutions cannot be filibustered. They are required to have up to 50 hours of debate divided evenly between the majority and minority. This includes debate on amendments, motions and points of order. No one amendment can be debated more than two hours – preventing a “filibuster by amendment” strategy. The one thing that is not counted against the 50-hour time limit is the time it takes to actually cast the votes – which is where “vote-a-rama” comes in. The Senate debates and votes until the 50 hours run out. At that moment, it proceeds to vote on all remaining pending amendments without any debate other than an announcement by the amendment’s sponsor as to what the amendment is about.
The Senate will hold dozens of roll call votes that can each take 15 minutes or more without any breaks. As a result, in an exhausting process, the Senate will often vote through the night as sleep-deprived staffers try to track just what the heck is being voted on at any given moment. Disagreements may arise on any number of issues, and long nights will frustrate any normal person, but it is still imperative that each Senator or staffers remain focused and aware of every vote – though this may be easier said than done (especially when the NCAA basketball tournament tips off at the same time). Keith Hennessey, a former Senate Budget Committee staffer and the person who claims to have coined the term “vote-a-rama”, aptly describes how a Senator or aide feels throughout the night: “Everyone is usually exhausted during the vote-a-rama, which comes near the end of an arduous and usually conflict-ridden legislative battle.”
Long nights in the Senate are not the only sign that special procedures are in place for the budget resolutions. For instance, their counterparts in the House can become a bit confused a about the rules that govern the process – and with all the time between Senate budgets, it is hardly a surprise. Unaware that Senate rules allow for budget resolutions to be brought up for debate with a simple majority of votes, Representatives Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Alcee Hastings (D-FL) were skeptical of the Senate’s ability to get the bill past a filibuster, Roll Call reported. Their colleagues informed them that only 51 votes were needed to bring the resolution to the floor. (In all fairness to these Members, with all the time between Senate budgets, it is not surprising to hear that some had forgotten the rules that govern Senate budget procedures prior to the beginning of budget resolution debate.)
The White House chief of staff Jack Lew made a similar mistake regarding budget procedure. “You can’t pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes and you can’t get 60 votes without bipartisan support,” he said. If Members of the House and the President’s own chief of staff do not understand how the budget process works, what chance does anyone have? Unless, of course, they are faithful readers of this column.
Despite the Senate’s inability to pass budget resolutions over the past few years, we can see a new trend in the budget resolution debates: The Senate should get accustomed to pulling all-nighters. Perhaps in part due to the recent hyper-partisan nature of Washington, and the desire for both sides to have their ideas brought to the floor, the Senate has debated an increasing number of amendments over the past several years. According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of amendments introduced from FY 2005-FY 2010 increased from 64 to 121. Of course, since it had been four years since the last budget resolution, perhaps this was also a case of pent-up demand.
It is also important to note that in the period since the Budget Act of 1974 reformed the process, FY 1999 was the only time before FY 2009 that more than 100 amendments were introduced. This increase is also significant considering that from 1975 to 2009, the Senate brought up an average of 46 amendments per budget resolution, passing an average of only 26. And while recently the Senate has increased the number of amendments introduced on the floor, the 63 amendments passed in the FY 2014 budget pales compared to the 101 that were adopted in the FY 2010 budget, the most ever.
Contrasting their legislative counterparts, the House has a fairly tame budget process once the bill is brought to the floor, since most of the grunt work is completed in committee. The largest number of amendments introduced and passed was in 1979, when 11 of 45 were approved. In reality, that year was anomaly, as very few amendments have been approved in era of the modern budget process. This is largely due to the House’s ability to produce special rules which only allows an “amendment in the nature of a substitute”, where the full text of a different resolution would fully the replace the text of the resolution on the floor. The last amendment in the nature of a substitute to pass was in 1988, when Budget Chairman William Gray (D-PA) offered the text of his bill in place of the one being debated (to read more about amendments in the nature of a substitute, click here).
This is a great example of the stark contrast between the two chambers – the House is truly a majoritarian institution, while each Senator can operate independently of his leadership and offer amendments in his or her own interest. And though the parties may focus on a common theme, such as the Republican message of balancing the budget, it is an opportunity for each Senator to show their constituents that he or she is listening to their concerns.
And yet, there is also the issue of intraparty differences that exist within a two-party system. In fact, several Democratic Senators that are up for reelection in 2014 voted against the budget, likely because they represent traditionally conservative states, and the Democrat budget resolution increased spending and raised taxes in line with President Obama’s stated budget preferences, causing a yes vote to be politically dangerous. So while being in the majority is most often an advantage, the Senate’s free-for-all amendment process may reveal a divide amongst members of the same party.
Outsider political viewers may consider the vote-a-rama a largely political show, but it is a great opportunity for Senators to show their independence and get their priorities considered by the full. Because the House budget is most often approved as a bulk package, this is also a tremendous opportunity for a Senator to champion an issue that was left out of the House budget. As Roll Call wrote, “one tool available during the vote-a-rama is the element of surprise. A senator may offer an amendment without giving colleagues notice.” This surprise may offend other Senators, but could also be the one vote that proves to be the difference between re-election and defeat for themselves — or maybe a colleague in the other party.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Dan Risko is a staff assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.