Hamilton: Congress should kick bad budget habits

Lee H. Hamilton

You can understand why President Barack Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their recent budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that for all their hard work, our political leaders indulged in two bad habits that wreak havoc with effective and efficient government and cost taxpayers a pile of money.

First, while they gave themselves breathing room before the next time the debt ceiling has to be raised, they will nonetheless have to raise the debt ceiling eventually. They should have abolished it, or at least suspended it.

The debt limit was instituted during World War I, when Congress handed over to the Treasury the ability to sell bonds to fund government needs without getting permission every time. In essence, the debt ceiling was a way to keep tabs on the Treasury, while allowing the government to pay its bills for spending that had already been approved.

It has outlived that reasonable goal. These days, the debt ceiling is a political pawn, used repeatedly as leverage by opposition parties to make demands of the president. It has driven the persistent national game of “chicken” that has so tarnished Congress’s image in recent decades.

The need to raise the debt ceiling no longer reins in spending. Instead, it manufactures crises and exacerbates tensions within Congress.

The second bad habit is equally pernicious: The budget deal did little to shift Congress from its reliance on continuing resolutions. The CR was designed to keep government operating for a few days or weeks while congressional negotiators worked out the budget. In recent decades, though, it has become the way we fund the government.

Continuing resolutions bypass the appropriations bills written by specialized committees and provide a favored few interests a bonanza.

The CR puts the government on automatic pilot, avoids hundreds of difficult funding and policy decisions, and has become a substitute for working hard to pass a budget by the regular process. It lacks transparency, sidesteps good budgeting, puts all the power in the hands of a few congressional leaders, and invites Congress to act in a crisis mode.

Do you want the Congress to work better? If so, ask your favorite member to think big and not lock into a failing system. A good start would be to kick these two bad habits.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.