With the formal release of President Obama's budget, the pieces are finally in place for a reprise of the Washington drama we've all come to know.

There will be high-stakes negotiations, lines in the sand and enough intrigue to keep Beltway insiders riveted by every piece of breaking news.

The rest of us, though, are already worn out. Ordinary Americans are tired of brinksmanship and weary of a government that appears addicted to crisis. Why, they wonder, can we not pass a budget in an orderly, rational way?

It's a good question, though the answer is hardly reassuring: I believe Congress no longer knows how. True budget-making skills on Capitol Hill are eroding. It's in danger of becoming a lost art.

This need not be. There is a time-honored process that we can rejuvenate at any time for constructing a budget. On Capitol Hill, it's known as "the regular order."

This is the insider's way of referring to procedures designed to give members of Congress a clear, fair way to scrutinize, consider, debate and reach consensus on the divisive issues that go along with taxing and spending.

The last time Congress passed a regular-order budget, not an omnibus spending bill, was 1997. Though it was far from a tidy process, its abandonment, I believe, is what has produced our current mess.

The advantage of the regular order, in addition to its transparency and accountability, is that it spreads the workload and makes room for the expertise and considered judgment of a wide array of legislators. The process plays to Congress's core strength of deliberation.

These days, though, huge omnibus bills and continuing resolutions - not to mention the mindless cudgel of the sequester - are put together by a handful of leaders and their staffs.

They don't have specific, detailed expertise and are more interested in seeking partisan advantage than in fair process or effective legislating.

Too often in the past, members of Congress have sought some automatic budget mechanism - a balanced-budget amendment, say, or budget caps - to solve their problems.

Mostly, these have been a way to avoid the hard choices required by the regular order.

In the end, there's no substitute for experience, knowledge, hard work, compromise and a resolve to seek solutions.

That's what the regular order would encourage. It's time for Congress to stop paying it lip service and actually revive it.



Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.