Published March 12, 2019
Forget President Trump’s specific budget proposals. The fact that the budget he proposed Monday was labeled dead on arrival, just as most of his predecessors’ budgets have been labeled, is a prime example of why we have a dysfunctional government.
The budget is the single most important thing any government does each year. It sets national priorities and funds the countless services and programs that modern government operates. In almost every other country, a budget is proposed and passed on time regardless of how weak the government is or how many parties are part of the ruling coalition. Failure to pass a budget topples prime ministers and causes new elections.
Not here. The president’s priorities will be treated as mere suggestions while legislators of both parties promote their own pet projects. Moreover, our legislative system — with its equal legislative branches and the threat of filibuster in the Senate — forces further delay, lack of planning and conflict. Add the modern mix of political parties and their different priorities and — voila! — you have a recipe for annual disaster.
Three decades of government shutdowns and omnibus spending packages so large and delivered so late that no legislator has time to read the whole bill surely contributes to the overwhelming distrust Americans feel toward the federal government. Meanwhile, the president is kept out of serious budgetary negotiations until the last moment — when his signature is required to keep the system on track. This cannot go on.
Budgetary reform sounds arcane and technical, but it is essential if we are to stop this annual embarrassing roller coaster.
The key failure of our current system is that it does nothing to encourage the cooperation across parties and branches of government. Any reform needs to address this dramatic shortcoming.
One approach is to adopt New York’s executive budget model. The Empire State gives the governor the primary role in budget preparation. He proposes a comprehensive budget and sends it to the legislature along with language for all the necessary appropriations bills. The legislature then must act off of that budget. It can amend it, but it cannot ignore it.
The legislature is also required to use conference committees between the House and the Senate to resolve differences during the initial appropriations process — unlike in Washington, where each chamber produces its own bill. Items that are unchanged by the legislature immediately become law while changes may be vetoed by the governor on an individual, line-item basis. If the system breaks down and a budget is not approved on time, biweekly bills to keep the government operating are proposed by the governor, providing further focus and discipline.
The entire process empowers all branches while providing a focus and discipline that encourages compromise and narrows the range of disputes. It is far from perfect, but it’s dramatically better than what unfolds at the federal level.
Congressional leaders would surely chafe at imposing such a system upon itself, but then it falls to them to devise an alternative that ends our annual charade. To be workable, such a proposal must do four things: It must eliminate the distinction between budgetary goals and appropriations bills; it must give the House the primary authority to establish an initial spending plan that the Senate can only amend and not replace; it must remove the Senate minority’s ability to filibuster any appropriations bill, as is the current practice in budget reconciliation bills; and it must afford the president an opportunity to delineate objections to specific provisions that do not endanger the entire package.
Either approach to solving our budget woes would likely involve amending the Constitution, especially in the area of giving the president a line-item veto or some other provision that isolates areas of disagreement without imperiling the entire government. That surely would be controversial, but how better to show an American people who want more compromise for the common good that you are listening to them?
Alternatives to these approaches might be much more drastic. Most other democracies avoid this problem because they have parliamentary governments, in which the executive is elected by the legislature, not the people, and there is little or no separation of powers. Parliamentary systems presuppose a powerful executive whose task is to run government, not preside over the passage of laws. The fact that the executive is dependent upon the vote of elected representatives constrains him from acting against the people’s will.
Our system ensures that no law is passed without very widespread popular consent, but it is not conducive to tying popular will to executive power. This worked well when we had a weak federal government, but not so much in today’s era of large, active government. This disconnect between popular will and executive power alternatively encourages executive overreach, such as in Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his wall, and executive impotence, as is on display annually in our budget crises. If we can’t devise new forms of interaction between the president and Congress to minimize this discord, much deeper Constitutional reform may be required to preserve the republican form of government we all cherish.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.