It is a simple idea and a good one. Before the start of each fiscal year, before tax dollars are spent and more public debt is incurred, Congress is supposed to pass a set of laws telling the American people the plan for spending their money.
As we begin the 2013 fiscal year, however, none of the 12 regular appropriations bills that are supposed to fund the activities of the government and its programs has become law. The Senate has not voted on a single appropriations bill this session, and it has failed to pass a budget for the third year in a row. The House has outperformed the Senate by passing a budget and seven regular spending bills, but that should be read as faint praise.
In what passes for responsible governing in Washington these days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John A. Boehner struck a deal this summer for a stopgap measure to avert a government shutdown and keep the bureaucracy running at current spending levels for the next six months, past the election and lame-duck session of Congress and into 2013.
Ask why we are in this sorry state of fiscal irresponsibility and the partisan finger-pointing begins. A focus on split party control in Washington and the current rancor obscures the underlying and more serious problem.
The process for writing and enacting spending bills has not produced regular appropriations bills on time -- or even close to it -- for more than a decade. That breakdown has occurred under the leadership of both Republican and Democratic presidents, with congressional majorities of both parties and with unified and divided government in Washington.
Beginning with fiscal 2001, Congress has taken more than 60 days past the start of each fiscal year to conclude the appropriations process, with the median length of time to reach a deal stretching 89 days beyond the fiscal year's start.
In fiscal 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2011, the budget negotiations took more than 130 days after the start of the fiscal year. A striking feature of the process during three of those four years is that Congress and the president managed to enact only defense and homeland-security-related appropriations bills on time or early in the fiscal year and then proceeded to engage in protracted wrangling over the rest of the budget.
In fiscal 2011, Congress relied on a series of stopgap measures, or continuing resolutions, to fund the entire government until 190 days into the fiscal year. Only in mid-April 2011 did Congress pass a regular spending bill for the Defense Department, while running everything else in government on continuing resolutions for the rest of the year.
Contrast that with the 1990s, when Congress twice managed to finish its spending bills before the beginning of the fiscal year and usually wrapped up its appropriations work in less than 60 days after the start of the fiscal year.
During 1992 and 1996, when the appropriations process extended more than two months past the start of the fiscal year (1996 saw two government shutdowns for failure to reach agreement on continuing resolutions) Congress still made early and steady progress on appropriations. At least two-thirds of the 12 or 13 regular appropriations bills were enacted within 90 days.
If there is any consolation to be found in the flailing of the current Congress, it is that maybe we finally have hit bottom.
The April 2011 flirtation with a government shutdown, the summer 2011 budget battle and its accompanying downgrade of U.S. credit, the failure of the supercommittee and now the looming Jan. 1 fiscal cliff are impossible to ignore. We are approaching an asymptote of total congressional budgetary dysfunction.
The Congress elected this November will be faced with a stark reality: The time has come to engage in some institutional maintenance.
It was institutional maintenance that prompted Congress to undertake landmark budget process reform in 1974 with the Congressional Budget Act. In response to President Nixon's impoundment of funds that Congress already had authorized and appropriated, members of Congress took action to restore their capacity to exercise their constitutional power of the purse. That reform did more than restrict the ability of the executive branch to withhold funds, it remade the budget process to better fit the realities of how Congress worked as well as the size and scope of the federal government.
Today, Congress still operates with a budget and appropriations process based on reforms made in 1974. Of the most significant changes that have been made since then, all were made in the 1980s and '90s.
This time around, the need for major reform to the congressional budget process has been brought on by Congress' internal problems.
The budget and appropriations processes as they exist today were not built to withstand the politics of an increasingly partisan and polarized Congress. Nor were they designed to function effectively in the era of the permanent campaign for re-election.
Without an overhaul of the way lawmakers do their work, it will be difficult for any congressional majority, whether large or small, Republican or Democratic, to spend the people's money responsibly.
Tammy M. Frisby is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and teaches political science and public policy at Stanford University.