Every year for the last half decade, Congress has done the bulk of its important work in the same manner. It works like this.
Step 1: Set up an important deadline for a high-stakes piece of legislation like the expiration of federal funding.
Step 2: Two weeks before the deadline, negotiations begin between Republican and Democratic leadership in both chambers.
Step 3: One week before the deadline, negotiations regress and focus solely on those concessions that must be made for Democrats to vote for the bill.
Step 4: Release 1,600 pages of bill text to be voted on in 36 hours. The bill makes up nearly every single decision Congress will make on federal spending for the entire fiscal year. This is the first time that rank-and-file members, staff and the public have seen the bill. They will not have a chance to offer amendments to the bill.
Step 5: Pass the bill with those Republicans who hope to be seen as “responsible” and those Democrats whose votes were purchased with the aforementioned concessions.
Step 6: Sign the bill into law under threat of a government shutdown.
The process is a precursor to fiscal disaster.
Despite significant electoral gains in 2010, 2014 and 2016, conservative Republican fiscal hawks have utterly failed to restore fiscal responsibility to discretionary spending. With the exception of Budget Control Act spending caps passed in 2011, which have been routinely scrapped, the Republican Congress has made no progress in curbing reckless federal spending.
The Republicans who voted for the recent omnibus appropriations bill didn’t support it because it mirrored their campaign promises or even their voting history. It obviously didn’t. Clearly, the looming government shutdown and the perceived mandate to govern “responsibly” affects the outcome of major bills considered on the eve of a high-stakes deadline.
By now, we are all familiar with the looming debt crisis, thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rose to power by ably articulating the need for Congress to balance the budget. We are less familiar, however, with the road to actually enacting fiscally responsible products.
If Republicans wait until two weeks before Sept. 30 (the next funding deadline, which is disturbingly close to the time when the current debt ceiling will be reached), history will most certainly repeat itself. With the specter of a government shutdown looming, Republicans will make whatever concessions necessary to win the support of Democrats, while securing no positive policy outcomes. A spending bill which reflects not one single priority issue for the majority coalition that sent Republicans to the House, the Senate and the White House will be enacted.
It’s no wonder voters in both parties feel disenfranchised. Policy outcomes in Washington are dictated more by circumstances and brinksmanship than they are by campaign promises and party platforms. Laws with sweepingly broad implications are passed at 11 p.m. and signed into law at midnight before the deadline. It’s legislating at gunpoint.
So what? The omnibus passed and is in the books. Why bring this up now?
Because the only way to avoid repeating this disastrous process is to govern, in advance, through regular order. Congress must fund the government by moving separate pieces of legislation that represent discrete and related functions of the government. Rank-and-file members from both parties should have a fair debate and a chance to amend and improve the bills.
After the deliberative process the founders envisioned has run its course, the government will be funded in a drama-free and responsible manner. Moreover, the people’s priorities will actually be reflected by the government they pay for.
Every appropriations bill that moves through the Congress and is signed into law this summer lessens the impact of the inevitable September package. If Congress acts on the debt ceiling before August recess, Democrats have significantly less leverage than they would with the deadline looming only days away.
On the flip side of that coin, every week that goes by without significant action on either appropriations or the debt ceiling brings us one step closer to repeating the six steps outlined above. It’s your call, lawmakers.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill