Congress has slipped into uncharted and dangerous waters this summer. According to the rule books, this should be a time when the federal budget gets scrutinized and pieced together by a broad array of congressional committees and members on the floor. The last time Congress actually played by these rules for all of its spending bills was 14 years ago. This year, it’s barely even trying.
To be sure, both the House and the Senate passed a budget resolution in June, the first time since 2000 that they’ve adopted this formal guide to what lies ahead in an election year. This may be a small sign of growing dedication to the regular budget process, but it is still just a blueprint for spending, not the actual decisions to spend.
Setting the actual appropriations for the year looks much less promising. The Democratic leadership in Congress does not want a repeat of last year’s budget “negotiations,” in which they felt the White House essentially refused to negotiate. Since the White House is once again showing little sign that it is willing to find common ground, the Democratic leadership has signaled that it is comfortable waiting until next year for a new President, and possibly more Democratic seats in the House and Senate.
What seems to be a momentary standoff, though, is in fact a symptom of true political illness. Congress has lost the institutional ability to follow an orderly budget process. As a result it has undermined its own committees, shunted most of its members to the policy sidelines, failed to maintain the constitutional balance of powers, condemned the people who administer federal programs to season after season of uncertainty, and eroded the consensus-building, transparency, and accountability that keep our democracy vital.
Preparing the budget and setting the spending lies at the heart of what Congress does. It is how the Congress puts its stamp on the federal government. So its failure to adhere to effective process weakens it as an institution and weakens the country.
What should the process look like? As it evolved over many decades, it came to involve hearings and consultations by a multitude of committees, which would “authorize” spending by the federal agencies and departments for which they were responsible. Then appropriations subcommittees and the full appropriations committees would take up the task of actually approving the money to be spent, before sending separate bills for the various federal departments to the floor.
It was an orderly process that gave committee members a chance to examine the operations of the federal government and allowed ordinary House and Senate members to debate and amend the appropriations bills at several steps along the way. In other words, it promoted deliberation and the democratic give-and-take essential to a free society.
These days, we’re lucky if there’s more than one bill. The massive omnibus bills that Congress has gotten into the habit of passing wreak havoc with good governance and the democratic process. By shoving the entire budget into a single measure comprising thousands of pages, the leadership makes it virtually impossible for members of Congress to read through — let alone understand — what they’re being asked to vote on; undercuts members’ ability to ask hard questions and offer policy alternatives, represent their constituents, or file amendments; and makes planning ahead nearly impossible for everyone from the people who administer federal heating assistance to local school boards to federal contractors.
So why does Congress bypass transparency and accountability for a secretive and undemocratic form of policy-making bedlam? As the Congressional Quarterly Weekly put it not long ago, “There is a growing realization these days that the most powerful forces in the process — the congressional majority leadership, appropriators in both parties, the outside advocates who focus on spending-bill line items, and the president — actually stand to benefit.”
The leadership likes it, of course, because it focuses power in their hands; same with members of the appropriations committees, who find it easier to slip language into the bill behind closed doors. Lobbyists much prefer to focus on just a handful of members out of the limelight. And when the president needs to negotiate with only a few people on a single measure, his power is much greater than if his representatives are trying to juggle a multiplicity of members and bills. The only losers seem to be ordinary members of Congress and the American people.
There is a simple solution to all this. It’s called “the regular order.” For many years, Congress took up individual appropriations bills, debated them, and passed them on time. That process evolved for a reason: It safeguarded public discourse, enhanced congressional oversight, and buttressed the vital role Congress plays in forging consensus among diverse regions and constituencies.
If Congress wants to remain relevant and legitimate in these challenging times, it can start by reviving its disciplined approach to budgeting.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.