The most important function Congress serves is to debate and pass the federal budget. I know— it also levies taxes, imposes or relaxes regulations, and once in a while nudges our social, economic or political order in a meaningful way. But the budget tells the government what to do and makes it possible to do it. Everything else follows from that.
Even at the best of times, passing a budget is a test of Congress’s abilities. And these aren’t the best of times. Its two houses are controlled by Republicans who don’t see eye to eye. The White House is in the hands of a Democratic president who really doesn’t agree with them.
So to get a budget enacted into law, everyone involved has to negotiate seriously. They have to make realistic political judgments about what’s possible. They have to compromise. Given our divided government, you’d think that everyone would step up to these challenges.
Early in the year, following the GOP’s takeover of the Senate, it seemed as though they might. Gone, at least in rhetoric, were the days of shutdowns, sequestration, and the fiscal cliff. The “regular order” of committee hearings and duly marked-up appropriations bills would be restored.
In the House, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers accomplished something that hasn’t been managed for years: all 12 appropriations bills made it out of his committee. But that’s where the good news ended. For the bills themselves were largely political statements that had no chance of being enacted, as they contained provisions that were anathema to Democrats — including President Obama, who made it clear he had no intention of signing them.
What provisions? The appropriators voted to reverse the Affordable Care Act. They zeroed out family planning. They imposed strict rules on for-profit universities. They pulled back regulations on the environment. They resorted to long-practiced budget gimmicks: planning for faster economic growth than is defensible so they could increase projected revenues; boosting military spending then moving it off-budget, which allowed them to claim to support defense spending without actually counting it as spending.
So now Congress is headed for partisan gridlock, and the result is predictable, because we’ve seen all this play out before. Instead of the regular order, we’re once again pointed toward fiscal showdowns.
Last week, Congress gave up on securing a new round of transportation funding for the states — at the height of the summer construction season — instead announcing a three-month extension that saves the hard negotiating for the fall. A vote to raise the debt ceiling also looms in the fall. And, given the state of play, it seems inevitable that once again Congress will resort to the travesty known as a continuing resolution, which relinquishes Congress’s power of the purse by basically extending fiscal policy as it was the year before.
No member defends this way of budgeting, but they end up doing it year after year anyway, as if held hostage by their own worst inclinations. There are no serious negotiations at this point.
Which is a problem. Because to prepare a budget thoughtfully — especially when it requires negotiation with the other party — demands working through literally thousands of details. Yet we’re approaching adjournment with no serious talks to make mutually acceptable headway on the budget — though somehow Congress has found the time to take a recess, shutting down for the remainder of the summer.
So with Congress having left Washington and roughly a dozen working days once it returns to put a budget together, the delay we’re seeing means that Congress won’t actually be able to resolve the issues it faces. Congressional leaders seem fine with this. They rejected early negotiations, preferring a last-minute confrontation, which will lead to another fiscal impasse.
In other words, they’re punting. I can’t predict how long they’ll make their continuing resolution last, but with presidential elections looming, it may be longer rather than shorter. Instead of turning over a new leaf, as Congress promised it would do just seven months ago, it’s once again consigning us to fiscal chaos.
You should be angry. It’s a lousy way to do business.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.