If you were paying attention to the end-game of the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington, you may have noticed something interesting. For all the partisan division over the details, there was agreement on one point: It’s safest politically to defer hard choices to the last possible moment — and maybe avoid them altogether.
Democrats and Republicans offered proposals that avoided the details of cutting budgets or increasing revenues. They suggested commissions and committees that would make the hard choices for them; they favored caps on spending, without saying how caps would be enforced; they floated the idea that the President could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, allowing Congress to avoid the entire problem; they favored voting on a balanced-budget amendment, which is a way of telling voters you’re for a balanced budget without actually being held accountable for the hard choices that produce one.
There’s nothing new here, of course. Politicians love to find creative ways to avoid
resolving difficult policy questions.
Think back to earlier this summer, when there was a sudden flurry of interest in the War Powers Act on Capitol Hill, and earnest debates over whether President Obama had violated it by not consulting Congress on his decision to commit U.S. military resources to Libya. Members of Congress certainly had the right to argue that they should be consulted.
But the dispute did not address the key question of what should be done about Libya. It did nothing to advance an American path forward, and it diverted attention from the merits and demerits of the war in Libya. It was a debate over process, when what was needed was a debate over substance.
Nowhere has this penchant for avoiding tough choices been more evident over the years than in budget debates. Remember the “balanced budget” act from the mid-1980s known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings? It was an effort to accomplish by procedure what Congress could not construct on its own — a balanced budget. It didn’t work.
The line-item veto, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, spending caps — these are all process approaches that make it look like a member of Congress is taking action when, in fact, he or she is skirting the key questions: Do you cut defense spending? Rein in Medicare spending? How much of the taxpayers’ dollars should the government spend on education, environmental regulation, social welfare?
Sometimes, I think the smartest people in Washington are those who devise ways of sidestepping the substantive — but difficult — choices legislators should make. After all, politics is fundamentally about the challenge of setting priorities, nowhere more so than in a budget.
But once you make a choice, you inevitably alienate one or more constituencies. Politicians don’t like to do this. So it is not surprising that they love to give you a process answer to questions seeking hard, substantive choices.
They come up with spending caps that inevitably get overridden a few years later. They appear to make a decision but leave the details — and therefore the choices — to a commission or to executive-branch agencies. They defer hard choices to the president and let him take responsibility.
They vote to take a hard-as-nails stance — We’ll impose tough sanctions on Syria! — then include a clause at the end letting the president waive it in the national interest, so they can take credit for being tough on Syria without actually making tough decisions on sanctions. The result, as Yale professors Jacob Hacker and Oona Hathaway recently wrote in The New York Times, is that “Congress is saved from its inability to govern by being cut out of the process.”
I don’t suggest that debating procedure, opting for further study, or preserving flexibility are always ill-advised. There’s a place for them. But as a voter, you have both the right and the responsibility to not let political leaders off the hook when they’re avoiding making a choice. If they tell you they fought for a line-item veto or a balanced-budget amendment, ask specifically what they would cut. When they trumpet that they stood up to the president on the War Powers Act, ask them what we should be doing in Libya.
Lawmaking should be about making hard choices. Don’t let our lawmakers avoid them.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.