Lawmaking at the edge of a cliff: It’s how Congress gets things done.

The 113th Congress has started with acarnival of contrived crises.”  Observers warn that we should brace ourselves for more of the same over the next two years, while advocates for reforms in congressional operations bemoan that the only time Congress seems to act is when it is faced with a deadline.  Has deadline-driven politics become the “new normal?”   And what does it mean for governing?

Though their role has gone largely unheralded, deadlines have always been a central feature of lawmaking and important catalysts for governing. From annual spending bills to more periodic reauthorizations, renewals of expiring statutes permeate nearly every area of policy – education, transportation, defense, civil rights and criminal justice, to name a few – and for good reasons.

Authorizing programs and appropriating funds on a short-term basis encourages lawmakers to invest in less glamorous but essential legislative work.  Program renewals serve as important focal points for problem solving – for asking whether statutes and agencies are doing what Congress intended and for making programmatic adjustments. The 112th Congress was certainly not among the most productive, but most of its significant accomplishments happened in the course of renewing expiring programs – including the surface transportation, FAA, and defense reauthorizations.  Of course, among those significant reforms were the permanent changes to the tax code enacted as part of the agreement to avert the fiscal cliff.

Congress also uses program expirations to shape priorities in an overburdened institution. Expirations promote more efficient allocations of scarce time and resources. Committees charged with overseeing dozens of programs can defer pressure to act until a program is up for reauthorization.  The legislative agenda becomes more predictable for lawmakers and other stakeholders. Knowing that such scrutiny is forthcoming, agencies have incentives to stay on top of their programs.

Deadlines also help to promote compromise. In contrast to a permanently authorized program, inaction does not mean that things stay the same. Inaction in the face of a sunset means that things may get decidedly worse – a popular program expires or loses funding, taxes go up for everyone, the nation’s credit rating is downgraded.  When the reversion point is worse than the status quo, lawmakers have added incentives to seek common ground.

However, deadlines as a tactic can also cause more harm than good. In 2011, House Republicans took a page from this well-worn playbook when they refused to raise the debt ceiling. This tactic succeeded in focusing legislative and media attention on the deficit. But the partisan roots of the debt ceiling debate also distinguished it from more typical deadline politics. Most reauthorization efforts begin with general support for the program in question and often end with bipartisan support for the resulting legislation.  Here, Republicans tried to use the threat of a government shutdown to force cuts in broadly popular programs. They approached the negotiations not as a good faith effort to address the deficit problem, but instead as a partisan game of chicken.

We’ve seen some softening of the GOP position – some might say learning is involved – since the November elections. House leaders allowed votes on tax reform, disaster relief, and extending the debt ceiling. Sizable numbers of Republicans voted for each and many more appeared to be prepared to do so if needed.  As Sarah Binder points out, these were “must pass” legislation. She’s right, of course.  But what goes often unnoticed how much of the legislative agenda is “must pass.”

The “contrived” deadlines stemming from the debt limit game of chicken may not be ideal from a governing perspective, but they are nevertheless having similar effects for the legislative agenda. They are prioritizing problems (and that would almost certainly be receiving less attention otherwise), spurring discussions and negotiations, and perhaps (time will tell) even promoting progress on important fiscal issues.