2013’s many windows of opportunity

If terms like “continuing resolution” or “debt ceiling” seem like déjà vu, there’s a good reason.

Recent years have been marked in Congress by the same troublesome decisions to ignore regular legislative process and forgo passing legally required annual budgets. As a result, important appropriations bills approved in committee never receive consideration by the full chamber, and continuing resolution (CR) after continuing resolution is needed to keep important programs afloat. All the while, little is being done to address the deepening debt and ballooning deficits each year.

Since the last budget was passed in 2009, 15 CRs have been required to keep our government open, the debt has swelled from $11.15 trillion to $16.44 trillion and the statutory debt limit has been raised five times, with a sixth expected in May. Eleventh-hour decisions to avert government shutdowns and prevent all Americans from careening off what’s been called a “fiscal cliff” led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and an unpredictable marketplace. Many Americans remain unemployed or underemployed. Clearly, recycling these tired practices has done little to improve our fiscal environment.

If we keep passing stopgap measures instead of enacting a fiscally responsible budget, we will be left with the same outcomes that have proven ineffective for far too long.

2013 brings to Washington fresh opportunities to face these familiar challenges, many of which must be addressed in the next couple of months. Congress recently passed a bill to stave off the rapidly approaching debt-limit debate in return for a Senate-passed budget by April 15. We are still waiting for the president’s budget proposal, which was due to Congress last week and has been late four of the last five years.

Indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts delayed as a part of the year-end fiscal-cliff bill will begin on March 1 absent congressional action. And the current CR funding government operations is set to expire at the end of March.

The president will have a chance in his State of the Union speech to outline a new commitment to resolve our fiscal concerns. As he addresses a nation facing much uncertainty, the president should focus on the need for fiscal stability. This means rolling back unnecessary regulations that smother growth and stifle innovation. It means expanding global markets for quality U.S. goods. And it means addressing massive government programs sliding toward insolvency. It also means passing a budget this year and every year.

In Congress, addressing these issues will require tough votes. Admittedly, there are no easy solutions, but simply handing the government a new credit card after it maxed out the last one is not the right approach. The root cause of our enormous debt is Washington’s reckless spending spree, and this problem will never be solved until we get spending under control. It’s time we pass a budget and actually enact appropriations legislation. This process will help Congress act on opportunities for real savings and deficit reduction, but we cannot stop there.

This year, we must also address important government programs that account for nearly two-thirds of federal spending and are headed for insolvency. The Social Security disability trust fund is expected to be broke in three years. And the Medicare trust fund will no longer be able to meet its obligations beginning in 2024. These programs provide needed resources to Americans across generations, and it is important that we find a way to ensure they remain available now and in the future.

All of this is certainly possible, but it will require the Senate to fire on all cylinders. That means returning to the regular processes of debating and amending bills in committee, then allowing the full Senate to debate and amend them. That’s how potential new laws should be scrutinized.

Unfortunately, for far too long Congress’s failure to pass a budget has resulted in a sputtering Senate that lurches from one crisis to the next, often stalling until the last minute. Senators have been resigned to voting on massive year-end bills to avert calamities we’ve all known were coming — and doing so in a take-it-or-leave-it manner because the amendment process has been virtually nonexistent.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us, but I am optimistic that we can achieve our goals if we take advantage of this new window of opportunity and allow the Senate to work as designed. As I have in the past, I stand ready to work with my fellow senators from both sides of the aisle to make the difficult decisions we were sent here to make.

Johanns is the senior senator from Nebraska and a former secretary of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration.