WRITING a budget should be about imposing order. In America, it frequently causes chaos. By letting funding for the federal government lapse on January 20th, Congress demonstrated, again, how hard it is for it to approve spending. The disruption might be worth it if America’s budget showdowns led to better policy. But they do not. Budget-making does not bring income and outlays into line. It does not allow lawmakers much opportunity to weigh competing claims on resources. And it fails to make long-term planning easier. It is time for a shake-up.

The constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. Four things are odd about the way it uses it. First, annual budgets cover only the roughly one-third of federal spending that Congress has decided needs reapproval each year. Most entitlement programmes, such as Medicare, health care for the elderly, are automatically funded. So while budget-making provides opportunities for grandstanding by Congressmen about long-term fiscal problems, the process affords few chances to tackle the principal cause: swelling entitlement spending.

The second oddity is that the process rarely follows the script, written in the mid-1970s. Congress is meant to pass 12 separate bills funding each area of government, like housing, defence and agriculture. Each is penned by the appropriate committee. If spending gets out of hand, or…Continue reading