With the formal release of President Obama's budget, the pieces are finally in place for a reprise of the Washington drama we've all come to know. There will be high-stakes negotiations, lines in the sand and enough intrigue to keep Beltway insiders riveted by every piece of breaking news.
The rest of us, though, are already worn out. In repeated conversations with ordinary people, I've been struck by the immense frustration I've encountered. They're tired of brinksmanship and constant fiscal crisis. They're fed up with accusations, spin, fear mongering and intransigence. They've had it with a complex, opaque process when the outline of a solution — controlling spending and entitlements, raising revenues to meet the country's obligations and investing in economic growth — seems evident. Above all, they're weary of a government that appears addicted to crisis. Why, they wonder, can we not pass a budget in an orderly, rational way?
It's a good question, though the answer is hardly reassuring: I believe Congress no longer knows how. Talking to a group of younger members recently, I realized they'd had no experience of following regular procedures to craft a budget. They've spent their congressional careers watching the leadership put it together in an ad-hoc, crisis-fueled manner. True budget-making skills on Capitol Hill are eroding. It's in danger of becoming a lost art.
Yet it need not be. There is a time-honored process that we can rejuvenate at any time for constructing a budget. On Capitol Hill, it's known as "the regular order."
This is the insider's way of referring to procedures that Congress developed over our history as a nation. Their guiding principle is to provide a coherent and well-structured way of deciding in detail where our national priorities ought to lie, and then funding them. They were designed to give members of Congress a clear, fair way to scrutinize, consider, debate and reach consensus on the divisive issues that go along with taxing and spending.
The last time Congress passed a regular-order budget, not an omnibus spending bill, was 1997. Though it was far from a tidy process, its abandonment, I believe, is what has produced our current mess.
So what is the regular order? The president submits a budget on time (not two months late, as President Obama has just done). Then congressional committees and subcommittees take it up, dividing their work according to the departments of government — agriculture, defense, transportation and the like. They hold hearings, call witnesses, explore what the executive branch has done with its money in the past, and consider its plans for the future. They debate and draft their own proposals, and allow amendments from both parties. Once the full committee acts, its measure goes to the floor for further debate, amendments and a vote. Eventually, the bills arrived at separately by the House and the Senate get reconciled and go to the president to be signed.
The advantage of the regular order, in addition to its transparency and accountability, is that it spreads the workload and makes room for the expertise and considered judgment of a wide array of legislators. In the past, the leadership deferred to experienced committee chairmen who knew the issues they were confronting inside and out, and who had a talent for drafting legislation. Rank-and-file members had a chance to influence the outcome through amendments and debate. The process played to Congress's core strength of deliberation.
Not any longer. Now, huge omnibus bills and continuing resolutions — not to mention the mindless cudgel of the sequester — are put together by a handful of leaders and their staffs. They don't have specific, detailed expertise, and they're more interested in seeking partisan advantage than in fair process or effective legislating.
Too often in the past, members of Congress have sought some automatic budget mechanism — a balanced-budget amendment, say, or budget caps — to solve their problems. Mostly, these have been a way to avoid the hard choices required by the regular order. In the end, there's no substitute for experience, knowledge, hard work, compromise and a resolve to seek solutions. That's what the regular order would encourage. It's time for Congress to stop paying it lip service and actually revive it.
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.