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May 12 — “Vote-a-rama” sessions, the rapid-fire voting marathons that accompany budget resolutions in the Senate, appear to be an object of bipartisan scorn among senators trying to revamp the budget process.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), one of the panel's Democrats, singled out the often daylong ritual at the May 11 “fiscal summit” sponsored by the anti-deficit Peter G. Peterson Foundation. In a vote-a-rama, senators are forced to stay on the Senate floor for 10-minute votes that start in the morning and often last well past midnight on amendments to the budget resolution.
Because of the largely non-binding nature of the budget resolution, those amendments can range from changing tax or spending targets in the budget or setting a placeholder “reserve fund” for specific issues to amendments that, while also symbolic, can be used as bargaining chits later. The lengthy nature of the vote-a-rama as well as the potential for votes from it to be used by political opponents makes it unpopular among senators.
Enzi said the most recent vote-a-rama saw 83 amendments offered on the Senate floor, with 57 getting votes. “A lot of the amendments seem to make a point, but really have no effect,” Enzi said, citing the “reserve fund” placeholders, which have proliferated in recent budget resolutions.
“The process that is supposed to be the sort of high point of congressional responsibility to limit the debt of the country and set a spending and revenue path for it turns into a comedy of mutual insults and demeaning behavior,” said Whitehouse. “As we go forward with the process that Chairman Enzi has initiated, the low-hanging fruit is to make the process less demeaning to the Senate.”
Getting rid of vote-a-rama, one of the few opportunities for the minority to force politically tough votes on the majority party in the Senate, has also been endorsed by the Bipartisan Policy Center in its blueprint for improving the budget process.
In its July 2015 report, the BPC said the vote-a-rama was effectively an accidental creation, arising from legislative language that limited parliamentary debate but not necessarily floor time consideration.
“As a result, beginning in the 1990s, a practice developed known as ‘vote-a-rama'—whereby senators could continue to offer amendments after the time for debate had expired but not debate the amendment. The result was a long series of amendments and effectively no end to the process, except for exhaustion,” the BPC said. “Reform to this process could be achieved by establishing a cloture-like filing deadline for amendments and a time-certain for final vote.”
Enzi has said he would like to mark up a budget process bill by the end of May and has been promised floor time by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), once appropriations bills have been passed. But with only a handful of appropriations bills expected to move, Enzi has an uphill climb.
“If all we're going to do is produce an annual vote-a-rama, and a budget that nobody believes in, then we have better and more important things to do than that performance,” Whitehouse said.
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