News & Politics

A Tangled Mess

Why Congress can’t do even its most basic job.

Illustration by Harry Campbell.

More than two years after his death, legendary former senator Robert C. Byrd still had his fingerprints on the Capitol at President Obama’s second inauguration. Visitors who wanted to get into the dome on that high-security day needed special credentials, and to get them they were required to press a fingerprint on a machine that immediately sent the image to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia, one of many federal facilities Byrd had gotten built in his home state.

As the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1989 to 2009, Byrd wielded enormous authority, sending billions of dollars to West Virginia and using the power of the purse to wheedle votes from fellow lawmakers. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Deals got made, budgets got written, and Congress got its work done.

But the Capitol where Obama stood on Inauguration Day was a radically different place from the one where Byrd had reigned. The great debates on the House and Senate floors have devolved into something more like hate speech, where the bitterness between Democrats and Republicans—not to mention the House and Senate—prevent the legislative branch from doing even its most fundamental job: writing a budget.

And the coveted Appropriations Committee chairmanship that made Byrd and his predecessors so powerful? It has lost its luster. Two senior senators on the inaugural platform that day, Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Harkin of Iowa, had made a decision that would have been unthinkable in Byrd’s day: Both had turned down the Appropriations chairmanship in favor of other committees. They say it’s because they didn’t want to give up the chairmanships they love (Judiciary for Leahy and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for Harkin), but longtime Hill denizens see in the choice a sign of how the budget process has disintegrated.

“Back in 1980, when I first came here, being on the Appropriations Committee was a plum,” says Bob Stevenson, a former GOP Senate staffer. “Now, in the eyes of some, it’s a lemon.”

Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009—and despite successfully forcing the House and Senate to pass separate budgets this spring or forgo their own paychecks, lawmakers are wary of coming together to work out the differences between two radically different versions.

“There’s a level of mistrust in the system. There’s mistrust between old, young, Republicans, Democrats, House, Senate, tall, short,” says Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “There’s a trust gap here a mile wide.”

The appropriations process, which is supposed to follow a budget blueprint, has also unraveled, with Congress typically passing a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running. Unable to meet its own deadlines to make specific, thought-out cuts, Congress has allowed the sequester to take effect, leading to furloughs of federal employees and reductions in programs such as Head Start and unemployment insurance.

Disgusted? So is Congress.

“We’ve collapsed as a body,” laments Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican. “The past two years, we just quit working. And that’s terrible.”

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It’s bad enough that Congress can’t come together on social or foreign-policy issues. But as taxpayers trim their household spending and rethink retirement plans, they cast an exasperated look at their elected officials and wonder: Why can’t Congress set a budget and stick to it?

Part of the problem, says Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and a leading budget negotiator in Congress, is diminishing resources. Running the budget-and-appropriations process in Washington used to be akin to hosting a grand ball and handing out party favors. Today it’s all about looking at a dismal set of numbers and deciding who will be told no—and what sort of political revenge the denied may inflict on those responsible.

Earmarks are now largely banned. That has cheered strict ethicists, but it also means lawmakers must take even more bitter medicine without the help of a sweetener. And as mandatory spending on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare make increasing demands on the budget—more than half of which goes to such programs—the options for trimming are limited.

In Congress’s defense, doing federal budgets is a lot harder than making a budget for a household or even a small business. An individual who can’t pay the rent can find a cheaper place to live or take a weekend job. A business owner facing a tough market can lay off employees. But Congress can’t fire Social Security recipients, and bringing in more cash might mean raising taxes, which not only is politically unpopular but could also have a boomerang effect: Higher corporate taxes could lead companies to lay off workers, who would then pay less income tax. Even tweaking tax deductions gets tricky. Get rid of the mortgage-interest tax deduction, and on paper the IRS would collect $100 billion a year. But the change could depress the home-building, home-buying, and home-improvement markets, having a ripple effect on the economy.

Then there’s the budget-writing process itself, which has become so overwhelmed by campaign politics that lawmakers are nervous about taking any kind of vote, staffers say. In the past, senators would attach a slew of amendments to a budget bill on the floor—a good number of which were what Stevenson calls “message amendments,” meant to force a difficult vote for the majority party or to help an individual senator establish a voting record on issues such as Medicare or abortion. Many of these amendments went largely unnoticed.

But now, with Congress’s activity almost instantly reported on the internet and 24/7 cable news, such amendments can cause big problems for lawmakers. A senator who wants to do the fiscally responsible thing and vote for a budget bill risks getting blasted by interest groups on a volatile issue that has little or nothing to do with the budget.

In the House, amendments have to go through the Rules Committee, but getting a budget passed in that chamber has become more fraught, too. When the House was under longtime Democratic control—from 1955 to 1995—and not expected to change hands, “every election cycle was not a life-and-death struggle,” says Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “Now it is. The attitude is ‘I’d love for you to be successful, but I can’t afford to let you do that, because your success is, by definition, my loss.’ ”

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Congress has had its budget battles before, but there was a sense, years ago, that lawmakers had a higher calling, a responsibility to get some kind of budget and spending plan done, members and staffers say.

“When I went on the Appropriations Committee 30 years ago,” says Marylander Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, “on the Human Services and Education subcommittee there were 13 members, eight Democrats and five Republicans. I would tell people that if you had taken all 13 of us and thrown us up in the air and we had come down in random fashion around the table and then had a markup, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference [among the members]. A substantially different attitude exists today. Collegiality is almost impossible.”

When senators reached an impasse, then-GOP majority leader Bob Dole would corral negotiators into room S-207 in the Capitol with three terse words, Bob Stevenson recalls: “Work. It. Out.”

On the more boisterous House side, says Scott Brenner, a consultant and former GOP Hill staffer, “I remember being in so many different budget negotiations where you’d finally get the principals in the room, usually the older guys who had gone on trips together, who didn’t worry that if they voted ‘wrong’ on one vote, their own party would run someone against them.” Just as important, Brenner says, there weren’t “123 cameras outside waiting to report on what had gone on inside.”

Both Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and Patty Murray, his Senate counterpart, managed to pass separate budgets this year without a single Democratic vote in the House or a single GOP vote in the Senate. That’s not an encouraging sign that the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-run House will agree on a compromise. The passage of competing budgets is nothing more than another statement of how far apart the two parties are. And that divide has never been starker in recent history.

Ronald Reagan and his supporters wanted smaller government, but “they were not as anti-government as the current crew,” says James Horney, a budget analyst who came to the Hill in the early ’80s and is now a senior adviser to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Now, Horney explains, “you don’t have nearly as many Republicans and even Democrats who are experienced legislators and believe in the legislative process, working things out, and reaching a compromise. You’ve got the interest groups and talk-radio hosts looking at anything you do. If anybody makes any move toward compromise, you get hammered.”

Going back even half a century, there was a general consensus that government had a role in building societies, notes Scott Lilly, a longtime congressional budget staffer now with the Center for American Progress. A Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, started the interstate highway system. Richard Nixon offered a health-care plan not dissimilar to the “Obamacare” package so reviled by modern conservatives. But now, Lilly says, there’s a deep—and much wider—distrust of government that has conservatives vowing to reject a proposal with any new taxes or spending, even if that means damaging the country’s credit rating or shutting down the government.

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Americans, meanwhile, just want Congress to get its act together and work it out. Or do they? Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle complain that while constituents say they want comity, they also want it at the expense of the other side—whichever side that is.

Idaho Republican congressman Mike Simpson—an Appropriations Committee member who has also served on the House Budget Committee—recalls being on a radio talk show back home and trying to explain that each side had to give a little in negotiations: “A guy called and said, ‘Let me ask you, if I gave you a cup of coffee and said there’s just a little cow manure in it, would you drink it?’ And I said, ‘Well, let me ask you, if you were dying in the desert from dehydration and I came up to you with a bottle of water and said there’s just a little cow manure in it, would you drink it?’ There are no perfect bills that go through here, and that makes it tough.”

Congress may be bitterly divided, Hoyer observes, but “it’s also the constituency that’s become much more divided. It’s tough for Congress to get to an agreement, because they’re worried about their constituency, as our system demands they be.”

Among elected officials, Connolly says, “the reward system for cooperation, for finding common ground, has collapsed, and you will be punished more likely than not” for conciliating.

Lawmakers largely agree on that. Too bad they can’t agree on anything else.

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.