Scandal of dysfunction

Amid scrutiny and oversight of the Obama administration’s many failures and the scandals that have resulted, it’s easy to forget that Congress has failed — once more — to fulfill its statutory duty to pass an annual budget by April 15. Despite both chambers passing budgets for 2014, there is thus far no agreement to begin a conference to reconcile the two very different spending plans. And the clock is running to increase borrowing authority, as suspension of debt-ceiling enforcement expired last weekend. 

On Tuesday, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) criticized their own party on the Senate floor, saying Republicans had urged Democrats for four years to pass a budget but now, McCain said, “We don’t want a budget unless — unless — we put requirements on the conferees that are absolutely out of line and unprecedented.” McCain and Collins disagree with attempts by conservatives to demand Democrats agree in advance of a conference to exclude new taxes or a debt-ceiling increase in the final agreement. 

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If she were still serving, former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would likely have been on the floor, joining McCain and Collins to call for a return to regular order. But Snowe, who left Congress after her vote on the “fiscal cliff” package on New Year’s Eve, instead hopes she can help break congressional gridlock from the outside — the reason for her to race through writing Fighting For Common Ground, published last week. In the book, subtitled “How we can fix the stalemate in Congress,” Snowe makes recommendations for enhancing bipartisanship in the long term, but hopes in the near term that Americans will make their voices heard in the budget fight this summer.  

Snowe’s book is a terrific journey through the recent history of Congress, spanning her three decades on Capitol Hill, detailing how and when various forces created the paralysis the legislative branch suffers from today. Budgeting, the former senator asserts, is not only the central function of the Congress but one that provides the foundation for all other lawmaking and policy decisions, and which must be made by the two parties together. Emergency spending measures hatched at the eleventh hour by the president and some House and Senate leaders erode the ability of the two chambers and parties to work together on any legislation, she writes.  

Disheartened that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spent years refusing to pass a budget, Snowe’s decision to retire last year came after the debt deal of 2011, which deteriorated in 2012 and culminated in what she called a “temporary Band-aid,” known as the fiscal-cliff deal. “We not only failed to resolve real long-term issues of deficit and national debt, but demonstrated our endemic dysfunction by passing on responsibility first to a so-called super committee and then to a lame-duck session of Congress,” she wrote, adding that “history is still waiting” for an answer to our debt and economic crisis. 

Snowe’s recommendations to break the stalemate include: filibuster reform, ending secret holds, an open amendment process, passing No Budget, No Pay, five-day work weeks, a return to regular order of bills starting in committee, creating a bipartisan leadership committee, passing campaign finance reform, abolishing leadership PACs, creating redistricting committees to remove the process from state legislatures and holding open or semi-open primaries. Many of the recommendations would likely be dismissed by incumbents and establishment Democrats and Republicans, but Snowe hopes enough grassroots enthusiasm will one day lead to such reforms. 

In the near term, an opportunity exists to pass a budget deal and begin to fix the Congress Snowe described as a “place of burned bridges and scorched earth.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.