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Budget Process? What Budget Process?

National Journal recently reported that the House and Senate Budget Committees will introduce their budget resolutions before President Obama sends his budget to Congress.  President Obama will be the first President since 1921, when Warren Harding was in the White House, to fail to propose a budget before Congress acts.

The requirement goes back to the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and subsequent amendatory laws, which established the Executive budget process and require the President to send Congress a budget proposal for various government agencies and programs by the first Tuesday in February.  The House and Senate, in turn, must review his proposal, approve resolutions of their own, and then come together to pass a concurrent resolution to govern the drafting of appropriations bills.

Somehow Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and even George W. Bush managed to get this right.  What is going on with President Obama?

Although the President is legally required to provide a budget, its absence will not stop the flow of cash to Federal agencies. Realistically, Congress will probably continue to conduct business as they have done—which is not saying much, considering the Federal Budget process has been gummed up for several years now.  The President has submitted his budget late for three years running. Even worse, the last time the Senate produced a budget was 2009. Further, each year the Congress should pass roughly a dozen appropriations bills to fund government programs. However, it now routinely funds the government via “continuing resolutions”, which maintain spending levels or make only slight tweaks. Congress hasn’t passed all the appropriations bills since fiscal year 2002, and even then is needed a number of continuing resolutions to get there. (It also almost succeeded in 2006.) The last time Congress did actually complete the budget and appropriations on time was 1997, the year it balanced the budget.

In our polarized political environment, the parties often use the budget proposals of the other side as electoral cannon fodder.  Parties must win elections, but that doesn’t excuse a failure to act.  Budgets are one of the most important aspects of government – something the Constitution makes very clear.

Budgets are where we answer the questions about how big will the government be, how much power shall it have, how much of your money will it take, what vital programs will be funded.  This is where Congress and the President determine the level of entitlement payments, how strong our defense will be, how we will care for our elderly and the impoverished. It is the most important responsibility the President and the Congress has.  And the budget results of the last few years are pretty discouraging.

Although the overall results of the budget process over the past decade or so have been disheartening, there are some signs of hope that some in Washington are taking it seriously.  Since the Republicans took the House in 2011, the House has passed budgets, offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, in all those years. Unfortunately, the only place they have gone have been 30-second television commercials.

This year, the House proposed that if Congress fails to pass a budget they should not be paid.  “No budget-no pay.”  While this is not actually constitutional—the 27th Amendment permits a Congress to adjust only the pay of future Congresses, though perhaps they could put their salaries in escrow—it has had the effect of prompting the Senate to finally begin the process of passing a budget.

Congress and the President need to get back to a regular and predictable budget process if it hopes to avoid the never-ending succession of fiscal crises that have plagued our body politic for the last four years.  A good place to start would be by obeying the law.

President Obama, submit your budget.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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