Senate Budget Mania

UPDATE 11:43. Senate passes budget 55-43.

The Senate had its hands full today as it continued consideration of the budget. Today was a "vote-a-rama," a quirky part of the budget process where Senators are allowed to propose amendments unfettered. 

As of early this evening, more than 200 had been submitted. Senators frequently demanded roll call votes, which led Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to comment that if roll call votes were demanded for all amendments, they would be there for more than a day just to vote on them all.

But as of this post, 82 amendments were approved after a combination of unanimous consent agreements and votes. 

Most of these amendments are political posturing. Since the budget resolution is non-binding, almost all of these amendments have no practical effect. Even if they did, the House's procedure for consideration of the budget will strip out the Senate version and replace it with the version the House passes. Any changes from the House resolution will thus occur in conference committee.

Meaningless or not, here is a quick pick of three important (or interesting) amendments passed today:

1. This one is actually a pair, S.AMDT 873 (from Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)) and S.AMDT 974, from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Kyl's amendment raised the estate tax exemption to $5 million and lowers the tax rate to 35 percent. Durbin's amendment bans any legislation that has an estate-tax rate below 45 percent. The two have almost exactly opposite effects. The amendments passed 51-48 and 56-43, respectively.

2. S. AMDT 910, proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), prohibits legislation that includes a national energy tax that would affect the middle class. According to the amendment, "The term  `National energy tax increase'' means any legislation that the Congressional Budget Office would score as leading to an increase in the costs of producing, generating or consuming energy." This amendment passed 65-33.

3. S. AMDT 803, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, requires a 60-vote threshold for legislation that would increase revenues raised by lowering the deduction for charitable giving. The Senate version of the budget contains no such provisions, but it did not impede the measure on its way to passing 94-3.

The House passed their version of the budget earlier this evening — 233-196, with all Republicans and 20 Democrats voting no. As of this post, the Senate has three amendments to consider and will then vote on final passage.

The Plight of H.Res 133

Resolutions are usually non-controversial affairs. They often express the non-binding opinion of Congress and generally pass in lopsided votes.

Of course, not all resolutions introduced pass quickly or at all. The majority never see the House or Senate floor.

But on big issues of national prominence, they tend to move quickly. Take H.Res 58, "Commending the University of Florida Gators for winning the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game." It was introduced on January 13 with 25 co-sponsors. Nine days later, it passed 399-5.

So the fate of H.Res 133 seems surprising. Introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and co-sponsored by 32 other representatives, the resolution:

(1) recognizes the ascension of an African-American to the office of President of the United States to be a historic achievement; and

(2) honors the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States.

Johnson introduced the resolution on February 4; that day, it was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform, where it has sat ever since. Two months after introduction, the resolution is still sitting in committee.

As was noted earlier, it's not unusual for resolutions to sit in committee for a long time. But here are a few resolutions introduced after Johnson's that the House passed:

H.Res 153: Commending the University of Southern California Trojan football team for its victory in the 2009 Rose Bowl. 

H.Res 195: Recognizing and honoring the employees of the Department of Homeland Security on its sixth anniversary for their continuous efforts to keep the Nation safe. 

H.Res 224: Supporting the designation of Pi Day, and for other purposes. 

H.Res 273: Recognizing the 188th anniversary of the independence of Greece and celebrating Greek and American democracy. 

It is worth noting that of the above resolutions, only the one praising Greek independence had more co-sponsors than Johnson's measure. By that standard, it seems like H.Res 133's time for a vote has come and gone, and thus the bill will die in committee.

So what happened? Johnson is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, but no one seems willing to talk about the issue. Multiple calls to Johnson's office went unreturned as did an inquiry to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Is there something sinister afoot, or does Democratic leadership simply have other priorities? Tell us what you think.

AIG Bonuses Going Bye Bye?

Over the past few days, the $165 million paid to AIG employees in bonuses dominated the news cycle. Many have demanded they return the money, and some suggested Congress or the president should intervene to get the money back.

Well today, the House is throwing down the gauntlet and considering a bill addressing the bonuses. H.R. 1586 would tax bonuses paid by all companies receiving more than $5 billion in TARP funds at a 90 percent rate. People making less than $250,000 annually, however, would be exempt from the elevated taxation.

The sponsor of the bill is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). Rangel said on Tuesday that he opposed using the tax code as a "political weapon" because he has "some concern that I have that people will lose credibility in the income tax system."

The bill does not apply to firms that have repaid the TARP assistance, and it does not tax "commissions, welfare or fringe benefits, or expense requirements." 

It is being brought up under suspension of the rules.  This procedural move prevents amendments, but it requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

But is the bill even legal? Article I of the Constitution forbids "bills of attainder," which former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist defined as a "legislative act that singled out one or more persons and imposed punishment on them, without the benefit of a judicial trial."

It is not clear the provision applies in this case. But Sen. Judd Gregg think so. And even if the bill is not consider a bill  of attainder, it likely will invite a host of lawsuits, say legal experts.

The vote comes within the next few hours — we will have coverage for you.

UPDATE: H.R. 1586 passes 328-93.

Is this bill the right approach, or should Congress avoid taking action? Tell us what you think.

Bill of the Day: A Tax Credit for People Who Pay Their Mortgages on Time

We will kick off this week with another look at a fun bill: H.R. 1317.

But first, let us announce the introduction of Apture to our Web site. Apture is powerful media hub software that helps us bring you relevant information and multimedia content. In this and future posts, you will see little icons next to text, indicating expanded content.

For example, the names of representatives will have a Capitol icon next to them. If you click it, a window will pop up and show you their picture and some recent votes. Film strip icons indicate video.

Please play around with this new functionality, and tell us what you think!

And now on to the bill! H.R. 1317 would provide homeowners who make their mortgage payments on time for a year with a $5,000 tax credit. 

"It seems to me, and many of my constituents back home, that Congress is spending all of its time and energy rewarding those who acted irresponsibly," bill sponsor Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) said. " We must not ignore those who have played by the rules and lived within their means … Just because responsible homeowners are paying their mortgages on time doesn’t mean they don’t need help."

The tax credit is refundable. In other words, if it were to make a person's tax liability for a year negative, they would receive a refund from the federal.

Speaking about the program's scale, Shuster said, "It’s not a bailout, another taxpayer backed debt obligation, or a big government solution."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Housing Survey (PDF warning), Americans collectively held about 49 million mortgages. Among those, only 33 million were the sole mortgages on the involved properties. Delinquencies recently hit a record-high of just under eight percent. 

So if we make the conservative estimate that only 80 percent of those 33 million mortgages are for principal residences (the only type eligible for the $5,000 tax credit), and we further assume that 15 percent of homeowners will become ineligible by being delinquent at some point within the next year, the approximate cost of the program is $112 billion a year.

By comparison, the Medicare prescription drug benefit cost $50 billion in 2007.

The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and currently has 10 cosponsors, who include Democrats Christopher Carney (Penn.), Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Patrick Murphy (Penn.).

Is this tax credit a good idea or too expensive? Tell us what you think.