The impending "fiscal cliff" is the most thoroughly predicted disaster since the end of the Mayan calendar. The problem is no one is willing to design and implement a real solution that has any chance of bipartisan support.
The cycle of dysfunction has existed for decades. The federal Budget Act of 1974 created what was supposed to be a rational process for planning, approving and implementing government spending. It quickly became an empty paper exercise as appropriators ignored the budget resolutions. When the difference became embarrassingly stark, the Senate simply gave up on passing budgets at all.
Presidents create new budgets every year. Hidden inside the hundreds of pages is the "current services budget," or "baseline." This outlines how much it costs to maintain existing services at current levels. It factors in various cost drivers -- cost of living increases, escalation clauses in contracts, etc. Budget battles are fought over the increase above current service levels. When officials propose budget cuts, they are talking about cutting this increase, not about cutting current service funding levels.
The latest looming cliff is supposed to wrench the Washington policy players out of denial and avoidance, forcing them to actually do something real. This will not happen unless certain reforms are put in place.
* Start with the basics -- Use the "current service analysis" levels as the budget framework. Administration and opposing budgets can be aspirations compared against the true baseline. That will level the playing field and keep everyone honest about what is really an increase and what is really a reduction.
* Rise above ideology -- Both Democrats and Republicans contributed to making the cliff. Both sides spend like there is no tomorrow. Both sides embrace "sacred cows." Both sides live in a world where their people are angels and their opponents are demons. A good first step is to admit that each side has some good ideas and each side has looney ones. Democrats need to understand that even their most cherished domestic assistance programs are riddled with waste and inefficiency. Republicans need to realize that the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security are just as bloated and dysfunctional as any other government program they assail.
* Make inspector generals and the GAO "rock stars" -- The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, has 3,100 employees. There are also 73 inspector general offices embedded in Cabinet departments and major agencies. All these offices are filled with highly trained, dedicated objective civil servants who document waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiency, and recommend actions to eradicate and prevent future squandering of public resources. They document more than $650 billion in waste annually. That is $6.5 trillion in cost avoidance and direct spending reductions over the 10 years everyone uses to discuss the fiscal cliff. Except in rare instances, these reports, and their detailed recommendations, are universally ignored. Fix this by passing budget bills that specifically mandate GAO and IG recommendations are implemented and corresponding amounts of documented waste, fraud and abuse are cut from programs and agencies. This resurrection of effective congressional oversight would be very welcome and is already long overdue.
Having everyone discover that they can all agree on something will shift from the culture of confrontation to a culture of collaboration. Beginning swimmers start in the shallow end of a pool and then move into deeper waters as their skills and confidence improve. Congress and the White House could move into more complex and contentious waters as their ability to respectfully and constructively disagree improves.
Scot Faulkner was chief administrative officer for the U.S. House of Representatives. He blogs at citizenoversight.blogspot.com