Hamilton: The federal budget process remains broken
Every few months we have to contemplate the very real possibility that the government might close its doors. Is this really the best we can do?
Think about this for a moment: Two days away from a federal shutdown, Congress comes up with a stopgap measure to keep the government operating... for a week. A few days later it arrives at a bipartisan budget deal lasting a bit over four months. This, in turn, moves the President to take to Twitter with the following statement: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
With respect to President Trump, this assertion seems more focused on settling political scores than on the good of the country. There is no such thing as a “good” shutdown. The last time it happened, in 2013, it cost the economy $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s at the time. National institutions get shuttered, federal workers are out of a job for an indeterminate period, federal loans and support for veterans are frozen, state and local governments — and all the businesses, non-profits and community organizations that depend on them — face cash shortages, and the country’s most economically vulnerable must shift for themselves. All that and more happens during a shutdown.
Yet this is the state of budget politics in this era. We’re the world’s greatest democracy, and every few months we have to contemplate the very real possibility that the government might close its doors. Is this really the best we can do?
If the non-profit or business you respect most operated in this manner, would you be anything but appalled? Somehow, we’ve allowed ourselves to see this as standard operating procedure for the federal government.
How can it be that the most important document of the federal government — remember, the budget is the national blueprint for what we’ll do and how we’ll do it — gets handled in such a distressing, irrational, ineffective, uneconomic, and almost nonsensical manner?
I’ll tell you how: We keep electing people who tell us they’re distressed about conducting business in this fashion and then year after year fail to get us back on track.
Because make no mistake, we know how to do it better. Congress did it for many decades. It handled appropriations bills through committee hearings, gathered expert opinions, allowed members to propose improvements, and vetted federal taxing and spending thoroughly in both the House and the Senate before passing it on to the President. We had a steady annual process that may have had its difficulties, but offered the country a democratic and politically rational mechanism for deciding on our priorities and how to fund them.
We haven’t followed it since the middle of the 1990s. Instead, we’ve been forced to live with a process marked by high-stakes fiscal brinksmanship. Every important decision of government is reflected in the budget, but now we operate through omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions, all of which put the government more or less on automatic pilot. Operations and processes that should be reviewed annually get no real scrutiny. New initiatives are rarely considered.
The current budget deal, negotiated between Republicans and Democrats, at least has the virtue of having included both parties at the table with give and take on both sides. In Washington these days, that’s what passes for good government.
But let’s not mistake it for good process. Congress is still putting the budget together with no accountability, no transparency, and scanty debate. Most of it is written in secret largely by leadership staff. The process largely excludes ordinary members of Congress, except to vote after very limited debate. It offers little opportunity to consider amendments or expert testimony, or to conduct careful evaluations of proposed improvements and reforms. The ordinary self-corrective mechanisms that should keep government on an even keel are not operating.
And here’s the interesting thing: in all my conversations with public officials familiar with the current state of affairs, I can’t find a single one who defends it. They all know it’s bad process. But they keep using it year after year.
This is a real challenge to our representative democracy. The government faces enormous responsibilities at home and abroad, and the budget is the blueprint for how it’s going to deal with them. Isn’t it time we started getting it right?
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.