2013 Federal Budget: Is the Budget Process Broken or Evolving?


President Obama will release his budget on Wednesday, two months late. The White House explained it would not be meeting the congressionally mandated deadline of the first Monday in February due to the need to respond to the sequester debacle 

The House (aka Republicans) passed a budget resolution and shockingly, for the first time in four years, the Senate (aka Democrats) passed a budget resolution. The two are wildly different and will almost assuredly never be reconciled. And the president is about to throw his hat in the ring, after the fact, with his budget proposal.

Is the system broken or evolving? Recent events would suggest broken, but that remains to be seen. All evidence to this point (most significantly the sequester) suggests that the polarization of the parties is eroding the modern budget process. Divided government is the curse of a democratic system and a diverse electorate. President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich figured it out in the 1990s after a government shutdown, with the surpluses to show for it. Today, partisan paralysis in Washington will show its true destruction when the lack of consensus on how the government prioritizes spending continues to grow a national debt that the millennial generation just can't pay.

So how’s it supposed to work? And what does this deviation from the formal, legal process mean in the long run?

It’s important to realize that both the president's budget proposal and the congressional budget resolution (in the current case, the separate House and Senate resolutions) are simply outlines of how each body would like to spend the money it collects. They’re just suggestions that function more as statements of priorities than anything else.

Let’s break down how all of this is supposed to come together  in a perfect world.

The fiscal year starts October 1 of any given year. So, the 2014 budget takes effect on October 1, 2013. Eighteen months before this date, all governmental agencies under the Executive Branch begin compiling information to put into a budget. They gather all the numbers and submit them, by September, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB looks them over and reports back to the agencies what their specific budget will look like within the president’s budget. The agencies have a bit of time to respond. If they're especially unhappy with what OMB says, they can appeal. And so on and so forth.

Then, on the first Monday in February, the president submits his budget, a compilation of information from the agencies and an economic statement about the priorities of the administration.

The process moves to the legislative branch. Both the House and Senate Budget Committees get to work in writing their budgets, which functions as their statement of priorities.

Now I must ask you to close your eyes (well not really, because reading is involved  but bring yourself to a Zen place) and imagine a world where politicians not only get along but also work together as one functional and committed body with only the needs of the collective good in mind.

In that world, the House and Senate Budget Committees, taking all the information provided them  from the President’s budget, authorizing and appropriations committees, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS)  create their own budget documents that outline their spending priorities, which are then passed by the budget committees then the full chamber. 

When each chamber accepts the document, a conference committee is convened, made up of members of both the House and the Senate. The conference committee is tasked with reconciling the two bills, fitting them into one bill that can be passed by both chambers. In a perfect world, the bill is passed by each chamber and becomes a concurrent congressional budget resolution. Nice, isn’t it?

The resolution is a spending guideline during the appropriations process, which is how Congress funds specific programs. I would go into that whole process but I'm afraid I've already lost you. So please come back to political reality, and I'll get to my point.

This whole process is designed to allow Congress to react to the president’s budget and create the most all-encompassing and politically feasible budget resolution. But we know that the House (Republicans) and the Senate (Democrats) will never agree, and we know that the president’s budget will be met in the House with as much enthusiasm as a mouse has for a hungry cat. So does it really matter when the president releases his budget?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said releasing the president’s budget in April is like dropping a "bomb" on the legislative process. But the GOP would have called it a bomb (or something else equally as negative) whether it was released in February or April. Would you have been more likely to listen two months ago, Mister Minority Leader? I highly doubt it.

The point is, whatever the order in which things are done, there’s little hope of seeing a passable congressional budget resolution for FY14. I would call it unacceptable, but it's all our generation really knows of its government. Since 1999, we have had six without concurrent resolutions, including FY11 and FY12. And let’s not even start on FY13.

It doesn’t matter if the system is broken, breaking or evolving. There’s no question we deserve better. We deserve answers to the tough choices required in a unified budget.   We deserve a concurrent budget resolution.

This piece originally appeared on TheCanKicksBack.org.