Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Stopgap budgeting cripples government

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
January 28, 2013 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says that when Congress doesn't pass a real budget, key decisions are put on hold.
Julian Zelizer says that when Congress doesn't pass a real budget, key decisions are put on hold.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer says Congress' repeated failure to pass a budget is harmful
  • He says the constant series of short-term votes and debt-ceiling extensions extracts a cost
  • The government never grapples with key decisions about long-term investments, he says
  • Zelizer: Failure to pass a budget makes GOP criticisms of government seem justified

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Following their retreat in Virginia, House Republicans voted for an unusual budget plan, which the White House has given some indications it would accept. The GOP decided to temporarily extend the debt ceiling, the federal law that authorizes the government to borrow the money it needs to pay for its expenditures for three months.

This would give President Barack Obama and Congress time to deal with the pending budget cuts that were left unresolved by the fiscal cliff deal, and then Congress will take up the debt ceiling again in three months. The deal also imposes a pay freeze, starting on April 15, on legislators if they fail to reach a budget agreement.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Although some observers are breathing a sigh of relief that the Republicans won't use the debt ceiling to hold the administration hostage as it deliberates over the spending cut, the decision represents one more example of the kind of Band-Aid budgeting that has become normalized in Washington over the past few years. It just postpones the debt ceiling fight a few more months. The last time Congress actually passed a budget was in 2009.

In 1974, Congress tried to reform the budget by creating budget committees and requiring Congress to put together an overall budget. But that system has fallen apart. Rather than a coherent approach to taxing and spending, Congress has relied on stopgap measures called "continuing resolutions" to keep the government working.

Federal money is allocated but without any long-term plan. The budget process has become so polarized that neither party is enthusiastic about laying out a long-term plan. Senate Democrats have refused to propose a budget for fear that Republicans will attach amendments meant to embarrass moderate Democrats by forcing them to vote them down. Senate Democrats also know that House Republicans won't vote for what they put together.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Rather than dealing with the budget in a rational and thoughtful manner, the entire process has become so politicized that Congress simply offers short-term budget fixes and leaves agencies in a state of constant uncertainty.

The ongoing threat of massive spending cuts tied to raising the debt ceiling causes even greater uncertainty than the new normal of short-term budgets. Not only is there an absence of long-term planning, but the possibility of debilitating cuts in the future is something that has become very real.

This dysfunctional approach to budgeting has terrible long-term effects on the capacity of the government to do its business. One of the main functions of the federal government has been to make long-term investments in areas where private markets are lagging. But if Congress and the White House don't adopt a budget, the nation winds up postponing decisions about making such investments.

Obama: Debt showdown would harm economy
House GOP blinks in debt ceiling fight
Avlon: Call it the default ceiling

Historically, some of the most successful initiatives in our nation's capital have come when politicians were able to devote resources to structural challenges that had festered.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government devoted substantial amounts of money to higher education, bolstering the quality of our research universities and opening access to millions of Americans who were the first in their families to receive this level of education.

Federal investment also produced our modern computing and Internet system as well as advances in military technology that have curtailed the need for using large numbers of ground troops. For all the fiscal challenges faced by Social Security and Medicare, through both of those programs the federal government made long-term commitments that substantially reduced poverty rates and inadequate health care among the elderly.

Our most successful agencies have depended on some kind of stability and normality in the budget process. The most effective leaders, such as David Lilienthal at the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s or James Webb at NASA in the 1960s, were given some budgetary cover from Congress so they could engage in long-term planning that improved the infrastructure of rural areas or allowed us to make huge advances in our understanding of space.

In an era when conservatives and liberals often lambast bureaucrats as the prime example of inefficient and useless workers, it would be worth looking back at an era when a steady and predictable flow of funding allowed government leaders to do their job well, focusing on the long-term problems, not each short term political crisis.

Those conditions no longer exist. Over the past few years Congress has engaged in a type of budgeting in which legislators simply pass temporary, quick fixes each year, leaving agencies in limbo about what their status will be in the near future and preventing policymakers from really engaging in deliberations about how the resources of government could best be used.

One employee at the Federal Aviation Administration told The Washington Post, "I still have a lot of uncertainty about the sequester (across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to start on March 1). We don't know where it is going to lead us as far as furloughs. It's kind of unnerving."

Appointed officials and civil servants literally can't predict what will come next. Indeed, everyone connected with an agency is left scrambling. Since the buildup to the fiscal cliff deal, military contractors have been left in a state of great uncertainty about what to expect for their businesses, which are dependent on federal funds. United Technologies Corp., the Connecticut-based company with units that work on defense programs, could not even come up with a general number to predict how many jobs were at risk in the coming year because of the current state of affairs.

Back in 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that using continuing resolutions to deal with the budget resulted in "inefficient, start-and-stop management" through short-term contacts.

This kind of budgeting process makes the warnings of conservatives a self-fulfilling prophesy. It makes it impossible for the federal government to work well, as the right claims it never will. But in fact the budgeting process is the problem here, not government as an entity. The result is that in all realms of policy, from domestic programs to defense, we suffer as a nation.

As the new Congress begins, legislators need to take stock and rethink the way budgeting is handled. Otherwise they will severely erode the capacity of a federal government that was once responsible for some of our most important advances.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT