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Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Why can't Congress resolve budget gridlock?

  • By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN Washington Post
  • October 26, 2011 - 11:08 PM

This is how badly broken Congress' budget process has become: A Democrat and a Republican in the Senate have jointly proposed the radical idea that if Congress can't come up with a budget by April 15 -- a legal deadline now routinely blown -- Congress would simply shut down.

No other bills would be considered. No post offices named, no judges confirmed. Congress wouldn't even be able to abandon Washington and go home on recess.

"It'd be a pretty good incentive to get things done," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

In a Congress gridlocked in all kinds of ways, nothing seems more busted than Congress's most basic responsibility of developing a federal budget. Three weeks into a new fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and with a hard-fought short-term funding measure in place that will only last until Nov. 18, the government is now only a month from once again facing the wearying possibility of another looming government shutdown.

With the House on recess last week and the Senate away this week, there is now a broad expectation that the House and Senate might find it difficult to agree on spending to last through September 2012 before the deadline, which could mean adopting yet another short-term measure in November.

And there is no guarantee that process will not break down along the way -- as it did in April and again September -- once again forcing high drama votes with the continued operation of the government hanging in the balance. To a public grown disgusted by partisan bickering, Congress seemingly lurches from one spending crises to the next. But observers believe the showdown-of-the-month pattern is merely a symptom of a much deeper sickness in how Congress goes about planning the government's spending.

"It's a very serious problem: The world's greatest democracy cannot produce a budget," said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in Congress and now serves as director of the Center on Congress at the University of Indiana. "When people say it's dysfunctional, when they say it's not working well, the budget process, I think, is exhibit A in that charge."

The process dates to 1974, when Congress overhauled the planning process in an effort to enhance its own role as keeper of the purse strings. The process begins with the president submitting a recommended budget to Congress in February for the fiscal year that will begin the following Oct. 1. By April 15, both chambers are supposed to adopt their own resolutions, which are to broadly outline how much the government will collect and spend for the year.

This is when the appropriations committees used to get to work in each chamber, drawing up 12 separate bills that outline how much money will go to different agencies for various programs. Each chamber is supposed to pass its own versions of the 12 bills, then negotiate the differences between them and pass identical measures by Sept. 30.

In truth, the process has never worked well. Since 1974, Congress has followed the process as designed -- passing a budget and all 12 spending bills on time -- only twice. But budget observers say the process has gotten worse. With a new Republican majority in the House determined to make deep spending cuts, Congress could not agree on spending for the year that ended Sept. 30 until April -- and then just an hour before government was set to close down. For this year, the House has so far passed six of the 12 appropriations bills due Sept. 30, the Senate only one. No compromise measures have passed both chambers.

For now, it appears Congress has given up on itself -- abandoning its normal structure and assigning the task of straightening out the nation's finance to a bipartisan panel of 12 members of Congress, said Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office. "It's evidence that the members of Congress recognized we can't do this by the ordinary process," she said. "We need to do something extraordinary."

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