Failures in Leadership: Navigating by Fiscal Cliffs

Failures in Leadership: Navigating by Fiscal Cliffs

Let me start boldly. Shutting down the government, failing to adopt a budget (or even a continuing budget resolution), is a failure in leadership.

I’m not just referring to the most recent unplanned Monday holiday for federal workers. I have judged each such crisis in recent years similarly, whether the instigators sat on the right or the left of the aisle, or on both sides equally.

Of the powers of Congress, the first and most important is the power “to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” In other words, it is the power to raise revenue and to spend it.

This power marks a critical improvement over the Articles of Confederation, which left the central government dependent upon the unreliable states for revenue and unable to provide for the general defense, let alone the general welfare.

Good financial managers, whether for a household or a nation, allocate resources not just for immediate needs and wants, but toward long-term goals. We set aside money for our kids’ college and our own retirement (if we can) long before we need it. Government capital improvement programs extend across several years and most agencies strive to preserve them as planned. Major projects, whether a segment of highway, replacement of water pipes or a college education, usually cannot be funded out of single year’s revenue. We have to make a long-term financial commitment, and then keep to that commitment, to complete them.

In the old days of a Congress that adhered to “regular order” most of the time, the federal budget authorization and appropriation process generally provided such long-term reliability. This allowed for strategic investments in our military, infrastructure and services, effectively providing “for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”

The contemporary congressional “order,” which looks more like the progress of a drunkard staggering from lamppost to lamppost than it does like strategic planning, clearly does not.

When fiscal cliffs are the landmarks our nation’s policy navigators rely upon, we are well and truly lost.

I’ve heard arguments over the years, from both the right and the left, about why, in this instance, they are justified in holding the budget hostage. It’s always framed as a special case, a uniquely important policy objective or a uniquely significant historical moment. I can’t help but be surprised by how frequently such uniquely critical moments have arisen in recent years.

Of course, in each case, those who held the budget hostage were unable to achieve their goals through normal order because they had not won sufficient support at the ballot box. Impatient with process and unwilling to compromise, they risked the provision of the national defense and the general welfare for what may have been an important, even noble, but also unarguably narrow, policy objective.

Our Founders understood that the government they created would rarely have unified visions of good policy across the House, the Senate and the presidency. That’s what they wanted; a system that would empower people who saw the political world from different vantage points (by virtue of their different electoral bases), a system that would compel leaders to negotiate and compromise to get things done.

What would they think of us?


Interested in hearing me speak live? I’ll be at the National League of Cities Congressional Conference with two opportunities to learn: Leadership 101- Rules and Tools and Leadership 201- Fostering a Culture of Ethics. Join me on Sunday, March 11.