Memo to Congress: No budget is no way to run a country

May 7, 2012

Welcome back, Congress! During your recess, we marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. It was an anniversary well worth marking, and America is safer with the world’s most notorious terrorist out of commission.

9/11 occurred more than a decade ago. That’s a long time. But it has been even longer—sixteen years, to be precise—since Congress met the deadline for the appropriations bills needed to fund the government for the next fiscal year.

Instead, we’ve started each year with a series of stop-gap resolutions that prevent the government fromplanning ahead and operating efficiently.

While the world around us is changing rapidly, the nation’s capital is frozen in place, consumed with partisan finger-pointing and endless blame games.

The result of this dysfunction is exemplified by our towering national debt of more than $15.6trillion, and our projected annual budget deficit of $1.2 trillion for thisyear.

That’s no way to run a country.

Both of us served in the federal government (Bill in the Clinton administration, Gretchen in the Bush administration), and we know we can do better. And we recognize it sometimes requires small steps to get things back on track. Let’s start here: Get the budget done on time, from beginning to end, as the law requires.

How will that help? First, passing a budget would show that Congress can deliver on its most fundamental duties, which would serve to bolster confidence in the nation’s eyes. As of last month’s Gallup survey, Congress boasted a dismal 17 percent approval rate. Polling conducted by the Tarrance Group for Public Notice in April showed that nearly 60 percent of voters say the country is “on the wrong track.”

Americans are worried about the state of the nation, and they no longer trust Washington to do the right thing. That distrust of Congress and the executive branch only breeds further cynicism and bitterness—an endless and destructive cycle.

Worse yet, not having a budget breeds a lack of accountability and direction. Federal agencies, working off last year’s numbers and short-term appropriations, are unable to set priorities and plan for the future. That’s paralyzing government agencies, making it impossible for them to invest our tax dollars wisely.

Future projections show an endless road of deficit spending, making it more important than ever to plan for the future.

So we propose a simple performance target for Congress that can be summarized in four words: No budget, no pay. That is, paychecks for all members of Congress should stop if the budget resolution isn’t adopted and all appropriations bills aren’t passed by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

It’s a proposal No Labels has been advancing for some time now, picking up support for the measure inboth the House and Senate. Holding Congressional paychecks until a budget is enacted would create a substantial incentive to get the job done. That may seem harsh, but let’s call it “tough love,” and a healthy first step toward a worthy goal.

We recognize that Congress’s persistent failure to deliver a completed budget on time isn’t the disease that’s killing Washington—it’s a symptom of what’s wrong in our nation’s capital. But it’s an acute symptom, and our diagnosis is that treating acute symptoms is a necessary first step toward tackling the greater ailment.

So let’s get started now. Get to work on the budget, and start restoring the people’s tattered confidence in our government.

Hamel is Executive Director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well being. Galston, a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a co-founder of No Labels, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to getting government to work again.


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