The Richmond Register

Breaking News

Viewpoints

April 17, 2013

Tired of budget shenanigans? Here’s an answer

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?

That’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.

1
Text Only
Viewpoints
  • 06.29 CrystalFarewell.jpg Starting over at Head Start

    All I ever wanted to be was a journalist. Having worked on my high school and college newspapers, I knew it was the career for me.
    I love talking to people, listening to their stories, being creative every day and experiencing new things. But as you know, news happens outside the hours of 9 to 5, and my job here at the Register rarely stayed within that time frame.

    June 29, 2014 2 Photos

  • Ike Adams They don’t make strawberries as they did back in the old days

    I’m not inclined to go through my archives at the moment, but it almost feels like the column I’m about to write has almost become an annual thing over the years.
    At least I know for sure that that this is not the first time that memories of picking strawberries there on Blair Branch on hot days in June has triggered this keyboard about this time of year.
    I grew up on a little subsistence, hillside farm deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, among the coalfields near the Virginia line.

    June 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ike Adams Baby boomers have let technology rob their grandchildren of the joys of youth

    When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to see fathers and sons along creek banks fishing together or in the woods hunting squirrels or pitching horse shoes or even shooting marbles late in the afternoon in the cool hours before dark.
    Dads were teaching kids to play the games they grew up with. Little girls, learned from mothers,how to skip rope, play with jacks or play hopscotch.

    June 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ronnie-Ellis.jpg No Lincoln or Douglas in this debate

    Remember the famous slap-down in the 1988 vice presidential debate when Republican Dan Quayle compared his youth and limited government experience to those of John Kennedy’s when Kennedy ran for president?
    His Democratic opponent, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, acidly replied: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

    June 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ronnie-Ellis.jpg Senate campaign already in full bloom

    Any hope for a respite in the U.S. Senate campaign following Tuesday’s primary disappeared immediately.
    Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes came out swinging in victory speeches which sounded like campaign kickoffs.
    McConnell commended Matt Bevin on “a tough (primary) race” and appealed to Bevin supporters to unite behind his re-election bid. That will be hard for Bevin and those who backed him.

    May 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jim Waters.JPG ‘Taxpayer-eaters’ meet ‘self-serving politician-eaters’

    What some candidates could gain in this year’s election – beyond just winning office – is a stark reminder of how wrong political leaders were when declaring last year they had adequately addressed Kentucky’s public-pension crisis.
    Instead, legislators with serious courage deficiencies failed to agree on reforms beyond what they believe are “politically feasible.”

    May 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ike Adams Step Out, Step up for Diabetes Association

    Six weeks ago when I wrote here announcing the 2014 Edition of Team TKO’s American Diabetes Association, Step Out Walk Team, several dozen of you readers sent generous donations to sponsor grandson Tyler Kane Ochs (TKO) and me in the walk that takes place, rain or shine, in the mud or not, at Keeneland on the morning of May 31.
    Another several dozen of you either called, emailed or dropped a card in regular mail and asked that I remind you again “after the holidays” (Easter and Mother’s Day).

    May 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ronnie-Ellis.jpg Hitting the campaign trail

    The most watched race in the country ? the battle for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Mitch McConnell ? has so far produced a bevy of charges and not much substance.
    We haven’t seen that much of McConnell or his likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes out on the campaign trail.
    McConnell’s primary opponent Matt Bevin has been much more active and visible, but his performance hasn’t enhanced his chances.

    May 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • The case of the scary black cat

    If Margie didn’t believe that black cats were the harbinger of bad luck, she certainly believed it when a black cat brushed against her leg while she was leaning over a large trash can burning garbage one late afternoon.
    Startled by the sudden appearance of the feline, Margie opened her mouth wide and let out a blood-curdling scream that could have awakened Count Dracula himself.

    May 10, 2014

  • Ike Adams Basking in the spring sunshine

    If you had asked me, as recently as two weeks ago, to make a list of things I expected to see on the first Monday in May of 2014, two of the things that I actually did see would not have been on the list, even if you’d required that it contain at least 500 items.
    I’d have been a bit skeptical about Ralph’s purple asparagus and his gorgeous snowball bush, both of which came through most admirably. And I would have had my doubts about the poppies that have been in our back yard for several generations and the bearded German Iris that Jeanette Todd gave us more than two decades ago. It faithfully stuns us there at the corner of the front porch every spring, but there they were, basking in absolute glory as the sun set Monday afternoon.

    May 8, 2014 1 Photo