No Budget in 1,000 Days? No Budget Ever!

Around the time of President Obama’s State of the Union speech two weeks ago, Republicans and their allies came out arguing that the Democratic Senate hadn’t produced a budget in 1,000 days. Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) disputes the charge.

Is it true? The new budget season started Monday, so it’s a great time to examine that question.

Budget season really did start Monday. The Congressional Budget Act has a timetable in it (at section 300) that says the president submits his budget on or before the first Monday in February. We’re underway!

But I hope you weren’t holding your breath waiting to get a glimpse of the president’s budget. The White House has kicked back its release by a week—an unfortunate symbol of how both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue flout budget processes in ways large and small.

Now to the question: When was the last Senate budget?

Let’s start with a preliminary question: What is a “budget”?

The Congressional Budget Act defines it with reference to the document it appears in, known as a “concurrent budget resolution.” That definition is gobbledegook:

On or before April 15 of each year, the Congress shall complete action on a concurrent resolution of the budget for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year. The concurrent resolution shall set forth appropriate levels for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year and for at least each of the 4 ensuing fiscal years for the following—
(1) totals of new budget authority and outlays;
(2) total Federal revenues and the amount, if any, by which the aggregate level of Federal revenues should be increased or decreased by bills and resolutions to be reported by the appropriate committees;
(3) the surplus or deficit in the budget;
(4) new budget authority and outlays for each major functional category, based on allocations of the total levels set forth pursuant to paragraph (1);
(5) the public debt;
(6) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, outlays of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act for the fiscal year of the resolution
and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years; and
(7) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, revenues of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act (and the related provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) for the fiscal year of the resolution and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years.

Take a look at the last budget the Senate passed, though, and you can see these things—not that it’s a clear, readable description of what the future holds for government activity.

Now, Senator Conrad objects to the charge that he hasn’t produced a budget, saying that the Budget Control Act, which passed just last August, is a budget. It’s “more extensive,” setting the budget for the current year and the next one; it’s not just a resolution, but a law; and it has caps on discretionary spending going forward ten years.

Looking at the text of the bill, a government-budget novice like myself can’t see this. It doesn’t look like other congressional budgets, and it doesn’t fit with the definition in the Congressional Budget Act.

But why do we have to accept the government’s definition of what a budget is? It’s our government, and we get to decide when we’re seeing a budget.

I went to a handy resource, called a “dictionary,” to look up the word “budget.” The first two definitions are helpful:

1. an estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future.
2. a plan of operations based on such an estimate.

Now we have something we can use! And it can help us sort out what’s going on in federal ‘budgeting.’

The president’s budget, laying out not only gross spending numbers but the agencies and bureaus where the money will be spent, is a budget, under the more extensive, second definition.

What the House and Senate do, when they do their “budgeting,” is put out gross numbers and then some detail based on functional categories like amounts to be spent on “national defense” and “community and regional development” and stuff. That … almost meets the first definition, but it certainly isn’t itemized. Congress doesn’t actually do budgets.

My conclusion—as a human being and not a budget wonk—is that the Senate has not produced a budget in more than 1,000 days. I also conclude that the Congress doesn’t really produce budgets ever.

I investigate all this because of my work on transparency. If there is going to be a transparent federal budget and transparent spending processes, they have to have some relationship to what the public expects to see and some consistency among them (such as between the president’s budget and Congress’s).

If the political charge sticks—that the Senate has failed to budget—so be it. But the problem goes deeper. Congress basically doesn’t budget. It is owned by the complexity of the federal government and incapable of budgeting in a meaningful way. Congress just spends money in the appropriations process—which it flouts just as often as its so-called “budgeting.”