The government is running out of money. Its current funding will expire on Friday at midnight, unless Congress acts first.

It has two days.

Factor in the gridlock and dysfunction that have become the hallmarks of today’s Congress, and the likelihood of the House of Representatives and the Senate passing a funding bill by the deadline appears to be even more remote.

Yet, no one seems surprised by the government’s current predicament. The only thing remarkable about the situation is how utterly unremarkable and familiar it has become. The reason no one really thinks the government will run out of money is that this kind of thing happens all the time. In each instance, Congress somehow passes a catch-all omnibus bill at the last minute, or its members simply give themselves more time by extending current funding.

There is no reason to think this week will be any different. And therein lies the problem.

Congress may avoid a disruptive shutdown if it again produces a last-minute agreement by week’s end. But the way in which it keeps the government open in such situations is itself destroying the enterprise it will be funding.

Inherent in the act of funding the government is allocating scarce resources. It requires Congress to make decisions about how to spend taxpayer dollars. And that, by definition, is a very contentious process.

The problem is that members of Congress today do not like conflict. They shrink at the possibility of having to take a definitive stand in a public decision-making process. They prefer instead public posturing and backroom deal-making. This is because they think making contentious decisions is easier behind closed doors.

While that may be true, it is so only in the narrowest sense. A broader perspective illuminates the shortcomings associated with Congress conducting business in this way.

For starters, such a process is not well-suited to mediating between competing demands for the government’s funding. Choosing what the government will and will not fund inevitably upsets some more than others. A major part of any successful appropriations process is reconciling the debate’s losers to the outcome. That is harder to do when the process is hidden from public view because people cannot see whether their claims were given a fair hearing.

When Congress makes most consequential decisions behind closed doors, voters cannot effectively participate in the process. Closed-door deliberation obscures the inflection points at which the substance of those bills may be impacted most significantly. People interested in a policy are not likely to know where best to direct their efforts to influence legislative outcomes. Once legislation has made it to the floor, it may be too late as the process has, in all likelihood, already been structured in such a way as to ensure passage without further input.

Finally, a closed appropriations process weakens government accountability. When the people cannot observe how their claims are being adjudicated in Congress, it becomes more difficult for them to keep track of how Congress spends their money. This makes it impossible for voters to evaluate the extent to which their elected representatives are adhering to their campaign promises once in office, which leads to disillusionment and cynicism.

Yet, members remain uncomfortable using an open process to fund the government. In place of a systematic process explicitly designed to mediate between competing demands, Congress has developed ad hoc workarounds designed to insulate its members from conflict.

Today’s practice of making important decisions in private, as opposed to in the committees or on the House and Senate floors, is worrisome. While presenting a bill crafted in private by a small group of people at the last minute may make it easier to pass that bill, it does so at the expense of the people’s ability to participate in the process.

Avoiding similar scenarios in the future requires members to change how they think about conflict. Doing so will make them less likely to develop legislative workarounds to sideline controversy in important public policy debates. And it will reduce surprises by making it less likely that contentious issues are left until the last minute to be resolved.

This will make government shutdowns less likely in the future. Intractable problems become more manageable once people have weighed in and made their feelings known. For this to happen, the process must inform people and respond to their demands over time. And for that to happen, the process by which Congress funds the government must be open.

So, whatever Congress decides to do this week, let’s hope that it embraces conflict instead of shunning it.

Image credit: e X p o s e

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