By Lee H. Hamilton
In the days following the budget deal to stave off a government shutdown, the news was filled with reports on what the measure actually contained. Stories focused on the bits of budgetary hocus-pocus that got the White House and lawmakers to $38 billion in cuts, what was actually in those cuts, and the stray bits of policy-making that had nothing to do with reducing the deficit. But the news seemed to miss the most important point: the whole process got things exactly backward.
The way Congress used to work, budgets were crafted by a series of committees holding public hearings and debating separate appropriation bills. There was the occasional last-minute surprise, of course, but for the most part the process was organized and transparent. Our elected representatives knew what was coming and had the opportunity to shape it, and the American people knew whom to hold accountable for what.
This budget deal, on the other hand, was put together behind closed doors by a handful of people striving to meet a doomsday deadline, handed off to unelected staff and a few legislators to work out the details, and then presented to the bulk of Congress for a take-it-or-leave-it vote. In some instances, no one has admitted responsibility for last-minute maneuvers that changed established policy; they emerged from the black box of negotiations as if untouched by human hands. Call me old-fashioned, but I fail to see either the “representative” or the “democracy” parts of our representative democracy at work here.
Yet the concerns expressed by many members of Congress in the lead-up to their vote on the agreement had nothing to do with how they’d been shunted to the sidelines. Rather, they complained about what they’d learned was in the measure—especially among conservatives, the revelation that the deal did not cut spending as deeply as had been advertised. Meanwhile, congressional leaders, according to The New York Times, were “rueful” that a final vote had to be delayed an extra day, “giving opposition an extra day to build.” In other words, leaders didn’t want legislators to find out what was in the bill because this would worsen its chances of passage.
What’s especially worrisome is that Congress seems to have gotten addicted to this seat-of-the-pants style of legislating. The next issue on its plate is the looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling, and it’s a good bet that once again we’ll be treated to the spectacle of last-minute negotiations, recalcitrant caucuses trying to hold the other side’s feet to the fire, and a dismaying sense of confusion in Washington. The ability of the government to function and its financial credibility both at home and overseas grows more tenuous with every passing day. And only when it’s all over will we find out what actually took place.
This is no way to run a country, let alone a democracy. Comedian Jay Leno put it best: “A lot of people wonder what a government shutdown would be like,” he said. “I think a lot more people wonder what a government running properly would be like.”
Why is last-minute, dead-of-night negotiating among a few leaders so bad? For two major reasons. The first is its effect on government. As a shutdown loomed, public and private managers dependent on government funding found it impossible to plan ahead; agencies were forced to halt projects in midstream because the money they needed to continue hadn’t arrived on time; thousands of federal workers and contractors had no idea whether their programs would be shutting down; and confusion over which employees and which programs were essential paralyzed Washington and federal offices around the country.
Even more pernicious, the habit of cramming the federal budget—and other major legislation—into last-minute deals concentrates far too much power in the hands of a few leaders and staff members, effectively shutting most of the people who represent you and me out of the process. It also presents unparalleled opportunities for lobbyists pushing hard for narrow special-interest provisions to thrive in the confusion and shadows. It’s safe to say that some of them had more say in the recent budget deal than most members of Congress.
There is an answer to all this, and it’s a return to the procedure for crafting budgets that Congress developed over many decades of experience — committee hearings on individual spending bills, floor action allowing for an orderly amendment process, open conference committees, and then final votes in which every member knows precisely what he or she is voting on. That Congress has allowed itself to move so far from that time-honored process raises deeply disturbing questions about this government’s ability to govern.
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.