"Elect me, and I will run the government like a business!" How often have we heard that? Or, in response to an agency failure, "We need to ensure that government agencies run like a business."

The irony, of course, is that the 535 members of Congress who serve as the board of directors for the executive branch of government fail to abide by their own oft-repeated mantra.


The most fundamental requirement for running a business is creating a budget. How much is there to spend? How, when and where will it be spent? What are the goals of the spending? Until those questions are settled, everything else is just theory.

Yet it has been 17 years since Congress enacted a budget by its own chosen date of October 1. In the past 24 years — six presidential terms — Congress has carried out its constitutional responsibility to create a budget and statutory responsibility to pass a budget on time only in 1989, 1995 and 1997.

Passing a budget is common business sense and critical to the effective business of government. But Congress has failed to meet its own deadline 87.5 percent of the time.

This failure to enact a budget has real-world consequences: It is not possible to create a strategic plan, an annual operating plan or an annual spending budget. A departmental secretary or an agency head can't decide whether to fund basic services or start cutting them; set output or outcome goals; replace retired or transferred employees, or leave the positions vacant; purchase technology upgrades, or try to slide by and hope security is not compromised; engage in leadership development training to replace those eligible for retirement, or hope employees will not retire.

Without knowing a budget number, government executives are in limbo. They are often criticized for failing to act as if Congress will ultimately fund their projects at the projected level, and criticized when they take the risk of investing and Congress underfunds.

And this year, the uncertainty is exacerbated. The administration is asking government leaders to submit a proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, when the 2015 numbers may not be final before it is time to prepare the fiscal year 2017 budget.

With three budget years under review and each budget number uncertain, government leaders are wandering in the Land of Oz. There is lost time, energy and focus as government leaders try to respond to the ever changing financial landscape.

More importantly, there is paralysis in executive branch decision-making until Congress finally acts, which is often followed by a paroxysm of spending before the fiscal year ends.

No business could survive working with only 12.5 percent of its budgets timely finalized in over two decades. While Congress may have political reasons for its failure to timely enact a budget, there is no valid business reason. Before complaining and blaming others, those who think the government should be run like a business should start by first fulfilling their own constitutional and statutory responsibility to act in a businesslike manner.

Tobias is the director of Key Executive Programs at American University.