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Next House speaker must prioritize, govern

Most Americans do not know what a continuing resolution is, nor should they, because the U.S. Congress has been irrelevant to them since the day they were born. What Americans do know — aside from sophisticated parliamentary terms that mask dysfunction — is that Congress is failing the country. The turmoil over who will be the next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is only the latest sign of an institution noted for arguing instead of governing.

Few are willing to become the third-most powerful elected official under the U.S. Constitution following the announcement last month of the planned resignation of House Speaker John Boehner and the sudden end last week of the House majority leader's bid to succeed him. But the political fights that are becoming a regular occurrence in recent years, most notably whether to shut down the government, are because of process, not personalities.

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The processes of budgeting, appropriations and oversight have fallen apart, allowing emotion and chaos to reign on Capitol Hill. The power of the purse is the core responsibility embedded in the job description of every member of Congress; if the next speaker holds members of Congress accountable to this basic duty established under the Constitution, then, yes, positive change can emerge from this mess, even on Capitol Hill.

"Governing requires budgeting, and budgeting is governing," as former Republican Senator Pete Domenici and President Clinton's budget director Alice Rivlin assert in their report issued this summer on fixing the congressional budgeting process.

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While the House speaker drama unfolds in the weeks ahead, Congress must pass a budget by Dec. 11 because the government is operating under a short-term continuing resolution passed at the end of last month. A continuing resolution is another term for laziness in which lawmakers rubber stamp previous spending levels because they failed to enact a budget and pass appropriations bills. Signed into law hours before a midnight deadline at the expiration of the fiscal year Oct. 1, this latest continuing resolution averted a government shutdown and was completely unnecessary if Congress had followed budget procedures established under the law.

As for the Dec. 11 deadline for enacting a budget, Congress is poised to spend money before it figures out where to spend it. If a budget is not agreed to in time, another continuing resolution will be required to avert a government shutdown. As those issues play out this winter, the Treasury Department is warning of a U.S. credit default by Nov. 5 if Congress does not raise the debt limit. Americans should be excused for tuning out this series of fiscal dramas that could be avoided.

According to the Domenici-Rivlin report, only twice in the past 40 years have the dozen appropriation bills been completed on time, the last being in 1994. Congress has failed nine times to adopt a budget, with the majority of this inaction occurring in the past five years. The broken budget process breeds rolling controversies such as the debt limit debates, the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare, and the issue of whether to now fund Planned Parenthood, which receives federal funding and generated headlines this summer for its abortion practices.

The Planned Parenthood controversy should primarily be considered a legal issue, not an accounting maneuver that defunds agricultural programs and highways. If Congress properly used its power of oversight, hearings would expose the practices of that organization, and it could be handled as a criminal referral. If the will of Congress is to end the organization's government funding, appropriators can go through its budget line-by-line, and the committee would vote on its federal funding.

Apart from legislating, oversight over the executive branch is the other core responsibility of Congress. When Harry Truman was a little-known senator from Missouri, he got in his car in 1941 and drove around the country looking for waste, fraud and abuse among defense contractors profiteering from World War II. He saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and was on the cover of Time Magazine with the caption "Investigator Truman." In an organization with a $3.7 trillion budget, oversight alone could be a serious undertaking for 435 members of the House of Representatives, most of whom are distracted by daily controversies that fill the void when order and process break down.

A broken budget process and never-ending political fights explain why House Speaker Boehner threw up his arms in disgust and why so few are interested in the job now. The next speaker must show the nation what matters, and what doesn't, and what governing is.

Frank Howard, a business owner, is a Republican candidate for Congress in Maryland's 6th district. His email is frank@votefrankhoward.com.

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