If you paid attention to the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington, you may have noticed something interesting. For all the partisan division, there was bipartisan agreement throughout the debate on one point: It’s safest politically to defer hard choices to the last possible moment—and maybe avoid them altogether.
In the negotiations, Democrats and Republicans alike offered proposals that avoided the details of cutting budgets or increasing revenues. They suggested commissions and committees that would make the hard choices for them; they favored caps on spending, without saying how caps would be enforced; they floated the idea that the President could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, allowing Congress to avoid the entire problem; they favored voting on a balanced-budget amendment, which is a way of telling voters you’re for a balanced budget without actually being held accountable for the spending and taxing choices that produce one.
There’s nothing new here, of course. Politicians love to find creative ways to avoid actually resolving difficult policy questions. Once you make a choice, you inevitably alienate one or more constituencies. Most politicians don’t like to alienate people. So it is not surprising that they love to give you a process answer to questions seeking hard, substantive choices. Process approaches make it look like a member of Congress is taking action when, in fact, he or she is skirting the key questions: Do you cut defense spending? Rein in Medicare spending? How much of the taxpayers’ dollars should the government spend on education, environmental regulation, social welfare?
I don’t suggest that debating procedure, opting for further study, or preserving flexibility are always ill-advised. There’s a place for them. But as a voter, you have both the right and the responsibility to not let political leaders off the hook when they’re avoiding making a choice. If they tell you they fought for a line-item veto or a balanced-budget amendment, ask them specifically what they would cut.
Lawmaking should be about making hard choices. Don’t let our lawmakers avoid them.
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.