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Is this any way to do a budget?

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
Senate Democrats crowd into an elevator after the Senate passed a two-week stopgap spending bill in early March.
Senate Democrats crowd into an elevator after the Senate passed a two-week stopgap spending bill in early March.
  • Julian Zelizer: House GOP planning symbolic vote on debt ceiling
  • Congress budget process increasingly ad hoc, based on gamesmanship, he says
  • He says Congress is ducking key decisions, raising risk of a game of chicken

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- House Republicans are planning to hold a symbolic vote on the debt ceiling to demonstrate that Democrats don't have the votes to pass the measure without accepting stringent spending cuts. The vote is part of a larger drama that has played out this year over the federal budget.

Temporary budgets, threatened government shutdowns and debt ceiling crises are slowly becoming part of the normal vocabulary of Washington politics.

The fact is that Congress has a major budgeting problem. We have entered into a period where crisis budgeting is becoming normalized. Congress makes decisions over spending and taxing through a temporary, ad hoc process and by constantly invoking draconian threats of bringing the government, and the economy, to a total standstill. This is no way to make major decisions over the future of our federal programs or the fiscal health of the government.

Congressional budgeting has always been difficult. For much of American history the process was extraordinarily decentralized and inefficient. There have been numerous moments when Congress tried to reform the system.

Gergen: Kicking the can on budget choices

In 1974, for instance, Congress passed the Budget Reform Act, which centralized budget-making decisions by establishing budget committees in the House and Senate as well as a reconciliation process that prohibited filibusters. The reform also established a Congressional Budget Office to provide expertise to help legislators respond to the proposals of the executive branch.

Congress makes decisions over spending and taxing ... by constantly invoking draconian threats of bringing the government, and the economy, to a total standstill.
--Julian E. Zelizer

There was further reform in 1985 with the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Act and in 1990 with the Budget Enforcement Act, both of which created mechanisms intended to control spending and reduce the deficit.

But in the past few years, it has become evident that the budget process is not working. The problem is not simply the substance of the budget -- an issue on which both parties have legitimate disagreements -- but the process itself.

We increasingly have a dysfunctional system. Members of Congress are embracing tactics that have been used in the past on occasion and turning them into the regular decision-making process.

This year all of the bad practices seemed to come together into one particularly explosive session. One of the most damaging developments has been the frequent use of temporary budgets.

Unable to agree on the final numbers, Congress has used temporary resolutions to postpone votes. Since the 1970s, continuing resolutions have been used more frequently and for longer periods of time as conflict over the budget intensified.

The problem with short-term budgets is that government agencies are placed into extraordinarily difficult positions. They are unable to plan for the future and they are forced to run complex programs without knowing how much funding they will have in the coming year. Furthermore, programs can't be updated until Congress passes its final budget.

The threat of shutting down the government, which backfired politically on Republicans in 1995-1996, is another part of the congressional repertoire. This year we saw this play out again, as Republicans insisted they would let Washington close its doors unless the administration agreed to specified cuts. The threat didn't cause much alarm. It was simply part of the back and forth between Congress and the White House.

With that crisis resolved, we have now entered a new phase with the threats by the GOP that they won't raise the debt limit ceiling if Democrats don't agree to stringent cuts.

As Republicans have pointed out, focusing on President Obama's words when he was in the Senate in 2006, this is a game that Democrats have played in the past as well. Regardless of which party is making the threat, the willingness to send financial markets into chaos in order to extract concessions on spending is a dangerous game to play and one that doesn't allow for substantive debates over government programs.

The risk is that one day, neither side will blink.
--Julian E. Zelizer
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Former budget director Peter Orszag has predicted that Congress will not raise the debt ceiling until members see dangerous movements in the financial markets this summer. He said: "That's the kind of force that I think will be required in order to bring the parties together."

We simply can't keep making budgets this way. In addition to the fact that Congress can't make rational and intelligent decisions over spending in this kind of explosive atmosphere, the process also creates a game of chicken where the risk is that one day, neither side will blink.

Unlike some of the previous eras of reform, where there were specific changes to the process that could address problems the legislature faced, in this case much of the gamesmanship stems from intense partisanship and a 24-hour media cycle that thrives on these kinds of stories.

Both parties will have to look at themselves and the potential consequences of what they are doing in order to restore some semblance of normality to how they make the most important decisions facing legislators.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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