Lee Hamilton: The budget process is broken; we need to fix it

Think about this for a moment: Two days away from a federal shutdown, Congress comes up with a stopgap measure to keep the government operating – for a week. A few days later, it arrives at a bipartisan budget deal lasting a bit over four months. This, in turn, moves the president to take to Twitter with the following statement: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

With respect to President Donald Trump, this assertion seems more focused on settling political scores than on the good of the country. There is no such thing as a “good” government shutdown. The last time it happened, in 2013, it cost the economy $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s. When the government shuts down, national institutions get shuttered, federal workers are out of a job for an indeterminate period, federal loans and support for veterans are frozen, state and local governments – and all the businesses, nonprofits and community organizations that depend on them – face cash shortages.

We’re the world’s greatest democracy, and every few months we have to contemplate the very real possibility that the government might close its doors. How can it be that the federal government’s most important document gets handled in such an irrational and ineffective manner? I’ll tell you how: We keep electing people who tell us they’re distressed about conducting business this way and then fail to get us back on track.

We know how to do it better. Congress did it for many decades. We had a steady annual process that offered the country a democratic and politically rational mechanism for deciding our priorities and how to fund them.

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We haven’t followed it since the middle of the 1990s. Instead, we’ve been forced to live with high-stakes fiscal brinksmanship.

This is a real challenge to our representative democracy. The government faces enormous responsibilities at home and abroad, and the budget is the blueprint for how it’s going to deal with them. Isn’t it time we started getting it right?

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.