April 15 has arrived and Congress once again has not adopted a budget resolution. It was not for lack of trying. The Senate voted for S.Con.Res.11 on March 27 and the House approved H.Con.Res.27 on April 13. However, the two resolutions have differences, and the work of reconciling them is ongoing.
Failing to pass a budget resolution is not unusual. In fact, missing the deadline is the norm. Congress has not met the deadline since 2003. In the 40 years since the enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, Congress has adopted a resolution on time only six times, according to the Congressional Research Service. Congress blows the deadline by an average of nearly 40 days.
It is easy, and all too common, for observers to trash Congress for being derelict in its duties. But when a statutory target is missed 85 percent of the time over four decades, it is reasonable to ask: is the deadline actually feasible? Should it be changed?
Consider that April 15 is 104 calendar days into the year, 26 of which are weekends. The remaining 78 days include three federal holidays (New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and George Washington’s birthday). Easter and Passover also draw senators and representatives back to their homes. The State of the Union consumes another workday.
Then, of course, there are all of Congress’ other responsibilities, like considering and voting on bills, holding hearings and meeting with constituents and interest groups to hear their concerns. The task is made trickier still every other year, as a new Congress begins, meaning new members, new committee assignments, new staff and plenty of operational confusion. The current Congress arrived in January with a few hot potatoes, including legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
The budget resolution itself is also no simple document. S.Con.Res.11, for example, is more than 220 pages long. It requires a ton of work to put together. As CRS explains, committees of jurisdiction must first provide their respective spending and revenue estimates to the two budget committees, who then must compile a voluminous mass of data pulled from government reports, hearings, economic projections, budget projections and program information from sources as disparate as the CBO, the OMB, the Federal Reserve, executive branch agencies and, finally, their own congressional leadership.
The point of this herculean task is to craft an overall fiscal year budget, along with budgets for the committees. Given the record of failure, pushing back the deadline to, say, May 1 or May 15 might be more reasonable. Proposals to insert some sort of trigger that would impose pain for failure to adopt a resolution also could hold promise.
But it’s also reasonable to question whether the congressional budget resolution process is worth the time and effort. Perhaps it should be dispensed with altogether.
The budget resolution itself is not a law. The president does not sign it. The resolution is a plan for appropriators, who subsequently do the grueling work of cobbling together appropriations acts. According to the CBA, Congress is not supposed to vote on appropriations until after May 15. In recent years, Congress also has had a difficult time passing appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30). Government shutdowns, threatened or real, are becoming a regular feature of governance. This is not good, not least because budgetary uncertainty creates operational havoc for agencies.
The 1974 CBA tried to create a rational process to assure Congress had effective control over the budget and determined appropriate levels of federal taxing and spending. If Congress would just adopt the resolution and appropriate within those limitations voila, we would see real congressional control over our nation’s pocketbook.
In practice, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There have been eight fiscal years, including last year, in which Congress did not agree to a budget resolution at all. Money was appropriated anyway. Chicanery in crafting the resolution is commonplace, enabling legislators to evade limits and dodge hard choices. More generally, our nation’s finances are a mess. We are pushing up against the $17 trillion debt cap, not counting the $40 trillion in unfunded Medicare obligations. To call what we are doing “budgeting” defines the term to near meaninglessness.
For much of the 20th century, Congress did without a budget resolution. The budget process was led by the executive branch. The president and his agency heads went hat in hand to Capitol Hill, and whatever was appropriated was what they got. If Congress wanted to authorize and appropriate spending for some new initiative, it did so. In retrospect, that process looks less problematic than the one that replaced it.