Ornstein: Current budget crisis highlights dysfunctional politics

The budget process is hamstrung by a fractious political atmosphere that reforms alone may not alleviate. Photo: Associated Press

DALLAS, October 12, 2013 ― The current budget crisis will be resolved, most likely by a stop-gap measure. The process that created it is broken, though, and this is what we have to look forward to for a long time to come. There are no simple reforms that will fix it.

That is the view of Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar and political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. The way the federal budget process is supposed to work is not the way it is working. The series of continuing resolutions in the absence of a standard appropriation bill are just one symptom of the breakdown in the budgeting process and congressional dysfunction. 


SEE RELATED: Norm Ornstein: Continuing resolution crisis and a broken budget system


April Thompson: So Congress doesn’t have to have a budget resolution, and the House at least is passing all these mini-CRs. Could they begin passing appropriations bills? Is there anything stopping them?

Norm Ornstein: There is nothing other than the lack of common ground or political will that prevents the houses from passing appropriations bill even now, past October 1, and taking some of these items off the table. Much less, of course, passing a continuing resolution at whatever budget levels.

The great irony now, frankly is that originally Speaker Boehner demanded in return for a continuing resolution to last for the year that the Democrats in the Senate accede to the Ryan budget numbers, which had much lower numbers and the full sequester on the domestic side, and made adjustments to ease it a bit on the defense side. The Democrats in the Senate and the president agreed, but then Boehner removed that offer from the table and went to one that said we won’t pass a continuing resolution which we would keep the government running after October 1 unless you defund Obamacare.

But they could still be working on individual appropriations. Before October 1, the House had passed four of the twelve appropriations, almost all of them with numbers that were so dramatically different in individual terms from what the Senate would accept that they didn’t have a great likelihood of being adopted. They had several others that they wanted to bring up and couldn’t because they didn’t have the votes for them. But that’s always doable. At anytime during the course of the year as well, you can override the continuing resolution with an appropriations bill that both houses agree to and the president signs.


SEE RELATED: Continuing resolutions are a stop-gap remedy when allocations fail


AT: So the Senate wouldn’t have agreed to the House numbers, do those bills not get worked out in a reconciliation process?

NO: At the moment, no. Of course nothing is being worked out now. We’re waiting to see, and more than likely if and when we get a resolution of this it’s going to be what was on the table originally, which is a pretty much the Senate agreeing to the House’s numbers.

AT: But can they? I know nobody’s talking at all. Is it legal by statute, if the Senate passes something different, do they work that out in conference?

NO: They have to work it out in conference, and if they don’t work it out in conference it’s no different than if they never passed anything in the first place.


SEE RELATED: Debt debacles: Defunding the American dream


AT: It seems to me that the budget process is broken. Do we need a new budget act?

NO: Yes. The budget process certainly isn’t working the way it was intended. Lots of people have proposed reforms and amendments. One of the things that’s been proposed by many people — it’s been a particular favorite reform of the former Senate budget committee chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico now retired — is to go to a two year appropriations process and a two year budget process. The idea being that you could do one year where you set the numbers for that two-year cycle, and the second year you could mostly do oversight, looking to whether the programs are working the way they’re suppose to.

There is some logic to that, but the practical reality is that it’s not only unlikely, but unlikely to work. Sometimes your forecast two years ahead can be very, very wrong, and you have to make adjustments. But also, so many of these disputes are not because they don’t have enough time to work it through, it’s because of the intense differences in ideology and strategy and partisan polarization.

It’s not clear that the problem is the structure at this point, although it is a problem, and it would be nice to have some reforms. The bigger problem is the larger dysfunction in our politics. That’s what’s keeping us from dealing with these budget issues in an expeditious and reasonable way.

AT: Basically, this is it for the foreseeable future, unless something changes?

NO: If we want to use a movie analogy, Friday the 13th and we’re in part three.


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April Thompson

April Thompson is a writer and home educator. She has a background in pro-life political work, including speaking to national, state and local groups on life issues. April lives near Dallas, Texas with her husband and four children.

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