The recent shutdown of the federal government encouraged easy analysis. Most commentators reserved their remarks to identifying “winners” and “losers.” But this is the low hanging fruit of political analysis. Anyone can look at opinion polls and figure out that the shutdown hurt Republicans more than Democrats. Here’s the harder question: why did we have a shutdown in the first place?
The answer is that our federal budget process is broken. Here’s how it’s supposed to work. In February of each year the president is to submit to Congress a budget. By April 15 Congress is required to pass a budget resolution. This resolution sets broad spending and revenue goals but does not actually spend money. That is to be done by thirteen separate appropriations bills which give the Treasury authority to spend money. These must be passed by October 1 of each year, the first day of the federal fiscal year. The shutdown occurred because the House, Senate and the president could not agree on appropriations levels.
In reality, things never happen according to this plan. President Obama has only met the February deadline to submit a budget once in five years. The U.S. Senate didn’t bother to pass a budget resolution for over 1000 days from 2009 to 2012. Congress rarely makes the October 1 deadline to pass its appropriations. Thus we govern by continuing resolution, which allows the Treasury to spend money at the previous year’s levels. Ultimately, Congress tends to pass not thirteen appropriations bills but large omnibus bills that have not been thoroughly vetted.
We govern by crisis. Budgeting is supposed to be a deliberative consideration of the nation’s priorities. Instead, we consistently find ourselves acting out of anxiety due to impending shutdowns or, related but distinct, debt limit ceilings. The “grand bargains” that result are not really budgeting; they are sloppiness caused by panic.
In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton famously asked whether free government can act out of “reflection and choice” or whether it is doomed to act by “accident and force.” Our budget process much more resembles “accident and force” than “reflection and choice.”
The reason is simple: our government is too big. We have a government that spends about $3.6 trillion a year. This is an unprecedented management problem. How can you budget that much money in a seven month process? You can’t.
It is then no wonder that the government’s own auditors say that the government is unable “to reliably report a significant portion of its assets, liabilities, costs, and other related information.” In other words, our government cannot produce a credible financial statement, something that would doom any private business. Indeed, in private business this is the kind of thing that earns you criminal charges. But it’s just another day for the federal government.
A government that tries to do everything will do nothing well. Until our government gets to a manageable size, expect chronic crisis. This is not just the failure of politicians. It is the failure of institutions and of the American people to put limits on their own desires for government spending.
Jon D. Schaff is professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of Northern State University.