As budget deadline approaches, a temptation to hit snooze

Congress loves to hit the snooze button. Is it time to wake them up?

Think of the U.S. Congress as a procrastinating undergrad, prone to sleeping in. Lawmakers don’t hesitate to hit the “snooze button.” 

Congress has a deadline for, say, passing a budget; the alarm clock goes off; and we get another short-term spending bill. The alarm sounds again when we get perilously close to that debt ceiling; but, there is some horse trading, and we’re solvent for a few more months.

“This is the symbol of how dysfunctional congress and the president have become,” says Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The issue here is, why do they keep setting up the alarm clock that enables them to push the snooze button?”

Binder says one reason is that, if leaders make a serious proposal too soon, they give up bargaining power.

So, what’s a solution? Maybe the deadline has to be a real deadline, says Laura Stack, an efficiency expert who calls herself “The Productivity Pro.”

“The problem is congress never seems to make one that is immovable,” she explains. “It always seems to be a moving target.”

Stack, who works with corporate clients, says she can’t believe the lack of urgency in Washington.

“This is not how I’m used to things happening in business,” she says. “I mean, we need to move, move, move!”

According to Bob Pozen, the author of a book called “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours,” “You could look at what Congress is doing as procrastinating.” 

“People have lots of reasons for procrastinating, but probably the best reason is this is a very difficult task,” Pozen says.

In this case, it’s a budget or tax reform.

Norm Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” He says there is a consequence to congress making and missing so many deadlines: “We’ve become deadened to them to a degree.”

Next Friday’s deadline? There is no real consequence for missing it.

“The December 13 deadline is a real one,” Ornstein says. “But it’s not the real, real one.”

Which makes it easier to put off until tomorrow -- or until January 15, when the government could shut down again -- what lawmakers could have done today.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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