Where to start? Fix the budget process

Friday, March 2, 2018

You could choose any number of marquee dilemmas to illustrate how broken congressional politics has become. Guns, Russian interference, climate change — Americans want progress on all of them and get little from Capitol Hill. But to my mind, nothing illustrates the dire state of our politics better than how we act on the federal budget.

This is not a glamorous issue, but it goes to the heart of our democracy. The budget is our operating system; it determines what the government does. Continually brushing against debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and shutdowns is a perversion of good government. We are saddled these days with an irresponsible process that produces irresponsible budgets, and we pay an enormous price for this.

We move from one short- or medium-term continuing resolution to another. We stuff what should be 12 individual appropriation bills into unmanageable omnibus bills. We let a handful of leadership staff craft our national blueprint, excluding most elected members of Congress from the process and forcing them, at the one point when they do have leverage — the final vote — to make a decision without having the time to read, debate, or amend what they’ve been handed.

Moreover, under Democrats and Republicans alike, the number of committee hearings at which outside experts have a chance to educate members of Congress has declined dramatically. Congressional leaders have managed to push both the experts and the vast majority of their own members out of the loop. This is the world’s greatest democracy?

There are costs to this. Federal departments and agencies cannot plan effectively. People, businesses and organizations that receive federal money can’t plan ahead — eroding their confidence in the system. And year after year we fail to face up to the problems confronting us.

An aging population, the security of our nation, our inability to deal with the changing speed and technology of warfare, rising health-care costs, slow wage and productivity growth, natural disasters, huge increases in the national debt — punting on the budget means that the meaningful solutions we need don’t get crafted. Congress is not doing its most important job.

Why is this? Why have we set aside a process that was developed over more than two centuries and that for many decades enabled the government to do what it ought and to pay for it responsibly?

Much of this is caused by extreme partisanship. We don’t work together to solve problems; each party demonizes its adversary, and respectful deliberation and civil discourse come to a halt. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t think the President and the Congress can function effectively unless they work across partisan, ideological and geographic divisions to restore compromise and negotiation to a central role in governing.

That’s because the budget is where all our differences on the major issues come to a focus. It’s where our political leaders establish priorities, debate them, and ought to resolve them. There’s no more crucial test of the ability to govern. As Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici wrote a few years ago in a report for the Bipartisan Policy Center, the process should “heighten debate of the fiscal challenges confronting the nation and set in motion real negotiations, trade-offs and fundamental legislative reforms toward the goal of fiscal sustainability.”

Unless we establish bipartisan negotiating and consensus-building and restore civil discourse, we’ll continue to fail that test.

As they point out, you can’t solve everything by improving the budget process, but good process significantly enhances the prospect of better performance. Without it, it becomes too easy for politicians to avoid difficult decisions like controlling entitlement spending or reining in the deficit. Process can’t substitute for political will, but it can buttress it.

So we’ve set aside a process that worked reasonably well and substituted a process that falls short in every way. Because Congress turns over substantially every few years, this means that it is now basically populated by politicians who have never experienced good process — let alone developed the skills to make it work. What may be most worrisome is that few people on Capitol Hill seem to care about this.

But if they don’t, you should. And you should let them know that you do.

©2018 Lee H. Hamilton.