Partisan paralysis has more than once brought the fundamental government responsibility of budgeting to a grinding halt. Now there's a bipartisan effort, spearheaded by Georgia's junior U.S. senator, to fix a process that is obviously broken.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has proposed a measure to convert federal budgeting to a two-year cycle. In fact, he's given it a shot every year since he's been in the Senate, which by our count makes last year's try number eight.
Make it nine, with the Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act of 2014, co-sponsored by Isakson and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Even without the brinksmanship of recent years, budgeting is a fiercely political process, and would be fiercely political regardless of the mechanics. You can't, as the truism goes, take the politics out of politics.
But Isakson and Shaheen contended, during a joint Monday appearance before the Rotary Club of Atlanta, that biennial budgeting would allow for a more deliberative process, as well as time for assessment.
It's not a radical idea; 20 states, including Shaheen's New Hampshire, where she formerly served as governor, have two-year budget cycles. There are obvious differences between statehouse and Capitol Hill governance, and what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. But some of the dynamics would be the same, and Shaheen said that from her experience as governor, the biennial cycle makes for greater stability.
Under the Isakson-Shaheen bill, Congress would pass a two-year budget in non-election years, and during the election year would assess that budget for ways to improve it the next time around. There would, of necessity, be safeguards and stipulations in the law to allow for emergency appropriations in times of crisis, such as war or other cataclysmic circumstances.
An immediate argument for this law, or some other measure: The temporary suspension of the debt limit, which Congress approved to avert another shutdown, expires Friday. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told National Public Radio that Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling -- an opinion with which Isakson concurs -- without it being a political weapon.
"We can't be in a place where the question of whether or not the United States pays its bills is something that every six or 12 months becomes a kind of demand of concessions," Lew told NPR, "because it cannot be a tolerable idea that the United States would not pay its bills."
Isakson said entitlement reform needs to be part of the debt ceiling discussion (and it should), but not as a line in the dirt.
"I don't think we ought to default," Isakson told NPR. "I mean, defaulting costs money, interest rates go up, uncertainty's greater. Our economy is at best fragile as it is."
If there's a better (and politically possible) way to fix the budgeting mess than the Isakson-Shaheen bill, let's hear it. We haven't yet.