Impartiality, Political Participation, and Federal Budget Process Reform

Americans long ago became acclimated to declarations of “fiscal crisis,” “deficit crisis,” and “debt crisis.” The same is true of demands for, and claims of, commitments to “fiscal responsibility.” But if Americans have heard it all before, it is also true that these declarations strike increasingly discordant notes. Americans seem more and more to understand that, whereas the declarations of fiscal crisis have some correspondence to observable reality, the commitments to “fiscal responsibility” are not credible. The result has been a decline in trust in government. Because trust may properly be considered to be one of the necessary lubricants of republican self-government, this decline is a matter of considerable concern. As James Madison noted about the role and importance of public opinion, “All power has been traced up to opinion. The stability of all governments and security of all rights may be traced to the same source.”[1]

The decline in public trust in government is both a reflection of the lack of credible commitments to fiscal responsibility and a manifestation of what two nationally recognized congressional scholars, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, have called the “demise of regular order.” One expression of this phenomenon is found in the neglect of, or the decision deliberately to disregard, “the rules, precedents, and norms guaranteeing opportunities for genuine debate and deliberation in the House.”[2] That abuses of regular order have occurred under majorities of both par- ties serves only to fuel the perception that the budget process is broken and that “ordinary citizens can have little confidence that their views have any weight in decisions made by Congress.”[3]

The collapse of the federal budget process and the decline in trust in government threaten the stability of the self-governing republic that we inherited from our nation’s founders. Informed by their moral and political philosophy, we suggest an approach to reforming the budget process aimed at reclaiming that institutional trust. We argue that budget process reform must be animated by two related ideas: First, that post-constitutional statutory law must be impartial, and second, that both citizens and their elected representatives have a right to participate in, and to influence, the political process.

The balance of the paper is organized as follows: Section 2 traces the evolution of budget process law and argues that Congress must reclaim its constitutional role as the first among the federal government’s equal branches. Section 3 provides an account of the procedural abuses that have effectively disenfranchised both members of Congress and their principals, America’s voters. Section 4 argues that federal budget process reform must be procedurally based. Finally, section 5 suggests procedural budget process reforms.

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