In my forty-two years in Congress, I’ve seen a lot of federal budgets get made. And I can tell you, it’s a process that would give sausage-making a good name. Amid the kaleidoscopic process of allocating resources, and the endless array of committees with frequently overlapping jurisdictions, the big picture of our nation’s priorities gets lost every time.

Take national security. In the last election, President Bush and Senator Kerry found some rare common ground here: They agreed that our top national security priority should be curbing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and especially keeping them away from terrorists. Few Americans would disagree.

But how best to do it? Clearly, invading and occupying countries suspected of having such weapons hasn’t worked very well. Instead, how about destroying or locking up the existing stockpiles of these weapons around the world so that terrorists can’t get their hands on them? Since 1991 we have used this strategy, with impressive results. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program has deactivated almost 7,000 nuclear warheads and destroyed 600 intercontinental ballistic missiles for delivering them. But the job is far from finished. The 9/11 commission’s report in 2004 warned that controlling worldwide nuclear stockpiles called for “maximum effort” by the US government to keep them out of terrorist hands. More than a year later the commission’s follow-up report expressed alarm that so little had been done.

Why aren’t we doing all we can to keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists? Last year we spent more than $60 billion on the war in Iraq. By contrast, we spent little more than $1 billion on the worldwide lock-down approach. Does that sound like a smart way to allocate security dollars? Yet Congress’s budget process makes it hard for members to make those kinds of comparisons and weigh priorities wisely. The dollar amounts for the invasion approach are funded overwhelmingly by the Defense Department budget; funding for the lock-down approach is spread across several departments. There is no systematic discussion of how best to balance, and fund, our national security priorities. We end up spending less than 2 percent of what we pay out for war on the strategy most likely to keep us safe.

Let’s bring some rationality to our budgeting for security. The first step is to have the Congressional Budget Office prepare a Unified Security Budget. Here, we would bring together three broad functions under the same budgetary umbrella: offense (primarily the military); defense (primarily homeland security); and prevention (primarily international affairs).

This seemingly simple step would give us a mechanism for examining, and fully debating, our big-picture security priorities. A Unified Security Budget would allow us to ask the important questions, like: Do we really want to spend thirty times as much on military solutions that don’t work as on nonmilitary strategies with a proven track record of success? It’s time for a budget process that encourages members of Congress to grapple with that vital question.