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Obama urges a budget without brinkmanship. But can Congress stop the insanity?

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Repeat that same steely standoff once more with the potential of a government shutdown and once again with the fear of a default on the nation’s debt and, voila, Washington could conceivably do more damage to the economy in 2013 than it did in the summer of 2011, when a debt ceiling showdown alone tanked US markets, crashed consumer confidence, and punished economic activity.

How could Washington break the madness? By doing what the president endorsed at the State of the Union (and what House Republicans have long ripped Senate Democrats for avoiding): passing a budget and sticking to the budget path.

The budget process is a deliberative one, in which committees in both the House and Senate develop budgets, move them to the floor, and then reconcile their differences in a conference committee. Then appropriations committees in both chambers get to work to nail down the dollars and cents for the proposals outlined by the budget committee in a series of more than a dozen bills that fund government operations.

That machine has been out of order for longer than a decade. Specifically, the Senate has not passed a traditional budget since April 2009, short-circuiting, Republicans argue, Congress’s main way for hashing out big debates over the nation’s finances even if the whole government funding process is hobbled.

But if Washington could get back to moving a budget (which both chambers have agreed to do this year), the fiscal fighting could be packed back into a more orderly and, hopefully, productive process.

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