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.
They’re not. Last week, Congress gave up on securing a new round of transportation funding for the states. And it now 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. There are no serious negotiations going on in Washington 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 without 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.
This delay 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.