Don't look now, but the do-nothing Congress may be actually starting to govern again.
For a number of years now, maintaining power, which has always been important to those who occupy the Capitol and the White House, has been the paramount concern of our elected representatives, senators and presidents. Frankly, we've become convinced that a great many of those holding federal elected office -- and a great many of the supporters who fund their campaigns -- have been willing to hold hard lines on the left and right to create gridlock for the sole purpose of finding ways to blame the other side and bolster their own numbers in the next election.
That's the politics of contempt that we've experienced. Lawmakers who don't follow the "company line" of their conservative or liberal leadership without fail fall out of favor and many have found themselves out of a job. Others have simply had their fill of it and decided not to run again.
But in an Editorial Board meeting Thursday with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, one comment he made in particular piqued our interest.
"There's hope for the U.S. Senate," Isakson said, "that it's finally getting down to business. ... The do-nothing Congress is finally beginning to do something, and that's good news."
For the first time in years, the Senate has approved a budget. The Democrat-written spending plan and the Republican-written one from the House will never reconcile, which in some ways makes them futile efforts.
"At least everybody's playing their hand," Isakson said.
And that can be, as he said, good news. Republicans can pick up a Senate budget plan and see what the Democrats are thinking. Democrats can do the same thing by picking up the House spending plan. Perhaps if someone looks hard enough, they might start finding some areas where the two sides can negotiate.
That may be a pipe dream when you have Democrats who want to raise taxes and Republicans who want to cut spending, but we all need to hope that it's not. The fact is, the United States government spends a great deal more than it takes in. Our government borrows about 41 cents of every dollar it spends, and that can't continue indefinitely.
It also appears that the federal government may be on the cusp of operating under a biennial budgeting system that Isakson has championed for some time now. He and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., reintroduced legislation last month that would set up biennial budgeting, and the idea that's been around since the Reagan administration may be finally generating some steam.
Under the plan, Congress would budget on a two-year cycle. One year would be for appropriating federal funds; the second year would be devoted to oversight of federal programs.
Isakson thinks the system, which is being used by more than 20 states, would force Congress to be better stewards with taxpayers' money. And it might just help lawmakers avoid fiscal fiascoes like sequestration.
"Sequestration is the worst way to cut the budget," Isakson said. "... Cuts should be done the old-fashioned way."
But regardless of whether it's the best approach, the senator said he's hearing positive comments from constituents who have had to tighten their own belts while federal spending has been growing year after year.
"Everybody's telling me, 'I'm glad the federal government is doing what I have to do,'" he said.
The pace of U.S. borrowing can't continue, not without turning us into another Greece or Cypress. Some hard decisions have to be made, both on revenues and spending. And with two-thirds of the federal government's $2.5 trillion in spending going to non-discretionary programs, entitlements can't be immune from reduction in growth and/or cuts.
The bloated federal spending can't be curtailed without pain. And while that should be shared, the process would be better and much more fair if spending reductions were based on reasoning, not some across-the-board approach that ignores the merit -- and lack of merit -- of various programs.
In any event, a more considered approach to drawing the federal spending blueprint, as would be the case under Isakson's biennial budgeting plan, would be a much needed improvement over the utter failure of the methods Congress currently employs. The sooner the Legislature implements this plan, the better.
-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board