With Debt Deal, Congress Abdicated Its Responsibilities

Washington avoided a credit default, but legislators put off the hard work and outsourced the decisions we elected them to make

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America voted for divided government. President Obama labeled it "dysfunctional."

Divided, yes. Dysfunctional? Not remotely. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, the past few weeks of budgetary spats were hardly the most passionate in our history.

The Nevada Democrat reminded skeptics of the infamous beating on the Senate floor in 1856 of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by South Carolina's Rep. Preston Brooks during a debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and slavery. Brooks clubbed Sumner with a heavy cane so severely that Sumner was momentarily blinded by the blood of his head wounds. So, Reid has a point. This summer, the nation was shoved to the brink of default and economic chaos, but no lawmaker was beaten to a bloody pulp.

No maiming and no default, therefore, have become the new and lowly benchmarks of congressional comity. But at one level, what can the nation expect? It has witnessed three consecutive wave elections--two with powerful Democratic tides and one with a countervailing Republican tide. From such forces, passion and legislative impatience arise. Inclinations set in motion by the first two waves led to an expansion of government via the stimulus, health care overhaul, and Wall Street regulation. The counterforce of the midterm GOP wave wrought fights over the continuing resolution to head off a government shutdown; a new House budget that uproots fee-for-service Medicare; and, just now, the debt-ceiling cage match (with Twitter feeds, not canes).

The present concern should have nothing to do with a divided government that people voted for or the illogical notion that arguments among opposing parties and factions suggest dysfunction.

The real concern ought to be about delegated government. Because that is precisely what the debt-ceiling compromise creates in three separate ways. "Delegated" might be too tame a word. Others like "subcontracted" or "outsourced" come to mind.

Super committee: This panel of 12 members, six from each party and chamber, will operate entirely outside the budget, appropriations, and authorizing process. It will receive recommendations from relevant committees but is bound by nothing the panels submit. The so-called super committee must achieve a majority vote on a 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit-reduction plan. That means the defection of a single Democrat or Republican could erase or severely undercut the policymaking preferences of everyone else in their own party. The committee's bill, should it produce one, will go to the floor on a privileged basis and must be considered as unamendable and without a filibuster option. "Yes" or "No" will be the only choice for the 523 lawmakers not on the super committee. Contestants on Deal or No Deal have more choice.

Sequestration: If the super committee fails, automatic across-the-board spending cuts would commence, hitting the entire domestic discretionary budget, payments to Medicare providers, farm subsidies, and other smaller subsidies. The cuts would not touch Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, jobless benefits, or veterans' pensions. And the across-the-board cuts have to be dollar-for-dollar defense and nondefense, meaning arbitrary cuts in military, homeland security, and diplomatic outreach in a post-9/11 world. That's a first, and it takes the standard legislative process entirely out of deciding the nation's year-by-year necessities and funding them accordingly. That means no priorities.

Balanced-budget amendment: Amending the Constitution takes a long time and a lot of debate. It could take as long as seven years. A balanced-budget amendment has never cleared both chambers. One version passed the Senate in 1982 and one passed the House in 1985. The amendment wouldn't actually balance the budget; it would only require it--subject, depending on the version, to exemptions for declarations of war or deep recession. By linking the BBA to the debt-ceiling debate, Republicans are delegating balancing the budget to a long-running process that, by itself, does nothing to achieve a penny of actual deficit reduction.

Perhaps, a nation that accepts a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution has gone through the national debate about spending and taxing priorities necessary to give Congress the political will to vote through the tough choices on taxes and spending. But there is only one way to find out for sure. Each party must fashion its own balanced-budget amendment and must pledge to vote for the other. Then both amendments could be sent to the states with each party's roadmap to balance in plain sight and may the first ratified amendment win. That's the only way to transform the BBA debate from a budgetary gimmick and dodge into a genuine national debate on fiscal rectitude.

Otherwise, the temptation to delegate, subcontract, and outsource the budget process will continue, legislative power will diminish, the people's voice will shrink, and the word "dysfunctional" might actually apply.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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