Congress has slipped into uncharted and dangerous waters this summer. According to the rule books, this should be a time when the federal budget gets scrutinized and pieced together by a broad array of congressional committees and members on the floor. The last time Congress actually played by these rules for all of its spending bills was 14 years ago. This year, it's barely even trying.
To be sure, both the House and the Senate passed a budget resolution in June, the first time since 2000 that they've adopted this formal guide to what lies ahead in an election year. This may be a small sign of growing dedication to the regular budget process, but it is still just a blueprint for spending, not the actual decisions to spend.
Setting the actual appropriations for the year looks much less promising. The Democratic leadership in Congress does not want a repeat of last year's budget "negotiations," in which they felt the White House essentially refused to negotiate. Since the White House is once again showing little sign that it is willing to find common ground, the Democratic leadership has signaled that it is comfortable waiting until next year for a new President, and possibly more Democratic seats in the House and Senate.
What seems to be a momentary standoff, though, is in fact a symptom of true political illness. Congress has lost the institutional ability to follow an orderly budget process. As a result, it has undermined its own committees, shunted most of its members to the policy sidelines, failed to maintain the constitutional balance of powers, condemned the people who administer federal programs to season after season of uncertainty, and eroded the consensus-building, transparency, and accountability that keep our democracy vital.
Preparing the budget and setting the spending lies at the heart of what Congress does. Budgeting is how the Congress puts its stamp on the federal government. So its failure to adhere to effective process weakens it as an institution and weakens the country.
The massive omnibus bills that Congress has gotten into the habit of passing wreak havoc on good governance and the democratic process.
So why does Congress bypass transparency and accountability for a secretive and undemocratic form of policy-making bedlam? As the Congressional Quarterly Weekly put it not long ago, "There is a growing realization these days that the most powerful forces in the process -- the congressional majority leadership, appropriators in both parties, the outside advocates who focus on spending-bill line items, and the president -- actually stand to benefit."
The leadership likes it, of course, because it focuses power in their hands; same with members of the appropriations committees, who find it easier to slip language into the bill behind closed doors. Lobbyists much prefer to focus on just a handful of members out of the limelight.
There is a simple solution to all this. It's called "the regular order." For many years, Congress took up individual appropriations bills, debated them, and passed them on time. That process evolved for a reason: It safeguarded public discourse, enhanced congressional oversight, and buttressed the vital role Congress plays in forging consensus among diverse regions and constituencies.
If Congress wants to remain relevant and legitimate in these challenging times, it can start by reviving its disciplined approach to budgeting.
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.