Does Congress’s Budget Delay Actually Matter?

Daniel Stone on why it might not matter that Congress hasn’t passed a budget in more than 1,000 days.

April 29, 2009, has become something of a day in Washington infamy. It was when the House and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats at that point, finally agreed and passed President Obama’s federal budget for fiscal year 2010. It happened late in the day and captured about as much attention as a middle-school band recital. The bill was for $3.55 trillion in mandatory and discretionary spending for the next fiscal year.

No big deal, an onlooker might say. But Republicans cry foul at that timeline, notably because it was the last time Congress passed a budget. Last week, on the same day Obama delivered his State of the Union address, House Republicans noted that it had been exactly 1,000 days since the last budget passed—a largely ceremonial but strikingly round number.

More than two and a half years since the last budget is proof, Republicans argue, that Democrats don’t know how to manage the nation’s money. A middle-class family couldn’t go that long without setting a budget, so shame on Democrats for being so derelict about America’s finances. Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Paul Ryan, the senior Republicans on each chamber’s budget committees, accused Democrats of “abandoning their official duty to prioritize Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars.” Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican in the Tea Party Caucus, planned a proposal for this week to withhold congressional pay until a budget is passed.

But outside Washington spin rooms, a question emerges: is a 1,000-day lag since the last budget such a terrible thing?

No, say several policy and governance analysts consulted by The Daily Beast. Since 2009, Congress has funded itself on a series of continuing resolutions (CRs), pieces of legislation affirming current spending levels. Congress also can pass new spending bills at any time, or drain a program’s budget if it’s underperforming, which legislators occasionally do. CRs don't include the enforcement bite of a formal budget, but that naunce might come across as inside Washington baseball. “I can’t imagine who [outside of Washington] would be truly upset about this,” says Stephen Hess, a governance analyst with the Brookings Institution. “[Continuing resolutions] ultimately result in a budget, just not a new budget. I don’t see it as a question worth going to the barricades for.”

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which studies economics, also has declared the formal budgeting process to be rather ceremonial in nature. “While budget resolutions are not laws, and the Congress can act on funding and revenue legislation without first adopting budget resolution, they can enforce good fiscal discipline,” the group said in a budget overview last year.

What irks Republicans so much is that current spending levels are unsustainable, adding about $1 trillion to the national debt each year. The budget needs to be cut, they say, and without a new budget up for debate, Republicans have little power to slash programs and agencies they dislike. (Yet Hess notes a hidden benefit of CRs for Republicans: no new budget means that spending is unlikely to go up dramatically, either.)

Senate Republicans think they can win the argument. "As the controlling majority in the Senate, [Democrats] have an obligation to lay out their concrete vision to the American people," says Stephen Miller, Republican communications director for the Senate Budget Committee. "Otherwise, on what basis can they argue for the privilege of governing the Senate chamber?”

Democrats are reluctant to wade into a fight about a new budget, and they say current discretionary spending levels aren’t the problem; entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, as well as unfunded wars, are upending the nation’s balance sheet. Broun, the Tea Party member, told The Daily Beast that such an attitude amounts to “abdicating our constitutional duties over to the president.”

To defend against the GOP attacks, Democrats point to spending caps that both chambers, and both parties, agreed to in August, including a spending reduction measure known as the Budget Control Act. Hoping to quell the media storm, the White House also notes that Obama will submit a new budget proposal on Feb. 13. Afterward, Senate Democrats will have an opportunity to debate it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that President Obama signed the latest budget on April 29, 2009. He did not. The Beast regrets the error.