While you were procrastinating on filing your federal income tax return this year, Congress was procrastinating too. Not over a government tax return, but rather a legislative budget resolution, which also is required under the law on April 15 of every year. Why does Congress drag its feet on this? It is because it is very difficult to pass a budget resolution.
The term “budget” is misused all the time in Washington. The true budget is that really big book that the president is required by law to deliver to the Congress by the first Monday in February. This year, it was late. That book is the White House wish list, which has no more real world effect than any other presidential or otherwise personal wish list. However, the second misconception of the budget is that Congress must pass it before the beginning of the next fiscal year or else the government will “shut down.” But that is not the actual budget. It is actually a package of a dozen annual appropriations bills that fund the operations of all the federal agencies.
In reality, the budget resolution is a fiscal blueprint that is required under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which created the legislative budget process as we know it. Prior to this law, Congress had no overall budget plan. It would just enact several uncoordinated pieces of legislation, including but not necessarily limited to those annual appropriations bills. The requirement for a budget resolution forced Congress to establish its overall goals. How much revenue? How much spending? Where should that spending go?
So there it is. When Congress says how much revenue it wants the federal government to collect, and how much spending it wants the government to undertake, it says how big the budget deficit should be. That amount, combined with the amount of the current outstanding public debt, says how big the debt should be. Want to help your next political opponent write the election attack ad against you? Vote for the budget resolution and thereby vote for the deficit and for the increase in the national debt.
At times like these, any honest and realistic member of Congress would recognize that a budget deficit will be inevitable next year, even if an aggressive program to reduce it is enacted this instant. Unfortunately, that reasonable thinking will not stop the attack ad. In fact, it will make the ad worse because the honest lawmaker would vote not only for the budget deficit but also for all the painful necessary steps to try to reduce it.
So it is not surprising that it is very difficult to pass a budget resolution in bad budgetary times thanks to politics. In fact, many casual Washington watchers naively assert that the federal government has a budget deficit problem “because Congress has not passed a budget.” However, as more careful budget experts know, Congress has a hard time passing a budget resolution because the federal government has a big budget problem, which is precisely the other way around. Since the federal budget was last balanced in fiscal 2001, budget resolutions have more often than not failed in Congress. Furthermore, apart from a few years when budget resolutions were used to facilitate the enactment of large tax cuts, they have generally gotten nowhere. This year will indeed follow that pattern.
Expect no news about a budget resolution on Tax Day. The best intel in Washington is that the Democratic House leadership and the Republican Senate leadership will both spare their members from taking the tough votes that would be required to pass their budget resolutions. This might seem politically prudent in that the chances for agreement between the two chambers and parties are closer to none than slim, meaning all of that pain would go for naught anyway. The budget committees in the two chambers of Congress have tried to draft resolutions, but those draft resolutions will go nowhere near the chamber floors for actual votes.
That will not make the budget problem worse, but it will not make it better either. It is virtually impossible to make meaningful progress against the deficit without the special tools that are made available only in a budget resolution. So with continued legislative procrastination, our national fiscal health will continue sliding down a slippery slope, until Congress and the president finally take action, either through leadership or in crisis.
Joseph J. Minarik (@JoeMinarik) is senior vice president at the Committee for Economic Development. He served as chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton and is the coauthor of “Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity.”