30 March 2012

A Simple Budget Agreement Process?

The budget is a beautiful thing. It forces a people to translate their warm and fuzzy feelings about politics into concrete priorities and numbers. Of late, we seem to have a problem with that process. I would like to suggest a solution.

The House just passed Paul Ryan's budget but that bill is unlikely to pass the Senate. By now we are all aware that Republicans and Democrats, the House and Senate, have different opinions about how we should be taxed and how our money should be spent. Their compulsion to prove those differences rather than resolve them must be a big part of why their approval rating is in the single digits.

Politics is different from war in that it is built on compromise. So what if we all agreed that each party - and maybe even each individual member of Congress - has different values? And what if we were to say that this difference was only the beginning, not the end of the discussion? And what if we were to further say that we value the values of every member of Congress equally? Perhaps all this could result in a real budget.

Imagine a scenario in which every individual member of Congress submitted their own budgets. Ron Paul might submit zero dollars for the EPA and the Board of Education and Dennis Kucinich might triple their budgets. But whatever each individual did, these budgets would be averaged into the new, conglomerate budget. (And yes there would be details to work out. At what level of detail should budgets be submitted? Do you simply take the average of the averages of the House and Senate budgets to arrive at the bill to submit to the President? None of these issues seem insurmountable.)

This would do at least two things.

1., it would expedite a task that currently eludes completion.

2. more importantly, it would force ownership of this task onto individuals. A congresswoman returning to her district could not talk about what DC did or did not do but would have submitted a specific budget with easy to read totals. "Why did you not submit a balanced budget?" she could be asked. "Why did you seek to cut money for the National Science Foundation?" "Why did you cut social security?" This would create more traction, it seems to me, on the issues that so quickly become vague and devolve into hand-waving. Everyone would be more clear that they could only influence totals, not dictate them, a reminder that we're a country of more than 300 million people with about that many opinions. But it would at the same time be a reminder that we - as individuals - are responsible and allow us to take control of our own decisions rather than become helpless about our inability to influence the decisions and values of others. Our representatives would all have clear ownership of a budget and realize that it was merely one input into a larger budget. (And the savvy representatives would likely seek some way to fracture this process further, inviting their constituents to also submit budgets so they'd have some basis for claiming that their own budgets were representative.)

Maybe it is just me, but it seems like it might be easier to calculate the average of numerical values than to negotiate an agreement on actual values.

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