Democrats Should Produce a Budget

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The process of funding the U.S. government begins when the president submits a budget request to Congress in February. Then everything falls apart.

At least, that’s the way things have been going, year after year. In a more rational world, Congress would prepare a budget resolution of its own, as the law requires. The details would be worked out in committees, and compromise between House and Senate versions would be achieved. Then Congress would use the final resolution to arrive at appropriations for each federal department and agency — bills that the president would sign into law by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.

But Congress has taken to sidestepping that crucial first budget resolution, and then dodging specific appropriations bills as well. When House Republicans were in charge last year, they failed to bring a budget to the floor, avoiding endorsing either the yawning deficit their recent tax bill had created or the unpopular program cuts that they contend are necessary to narrow it. Now Democrats are looking to duck their responsibility on the budget rather than risk a public fight over Medicare expansion, funding to address climate change and other controversial issues.

The lack of a congressional budget resolution doesn’t mean that Congress will accept the president’s budget. Far from it. Instead, party leaders jury-rig appropriations bills, now adding up to more than $1 trillion per year, without the benefit of orderly public hearings. Frequently, the spending bills are not done until after Oct. 1. The government is kept open via temporary spending bills known as continuing resolutions.

As a consequence, federal departments and contractors incur a costly loss of predictability and often higher expenses. And, of course, federal shutdowns happen with embarrassing frequency.

To their (partial) credit, Republicans last year managed to pass a handful of appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year. But they left the rest of the government to be funded by continuing resolutions — with a lengthy and damaging shutdown in between resolutions. The madness ended only with an omnibus spending package signed into law in February.

Various fixes for this broken process have been proposed. Republican Senator David Perdue of Georgia has suggested, for instance, to raise the Senate vote threshold for final passage of a budget resolution from 51 votes to 60 — on the theory that it would promote bipartisanship. But any reform that requires elusive bipartisanship may end up encouraging more legislative inertia, not less.

Consider the fate of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. A bipartisan, bicameral special committee appointed by Congress last year with the aim of reforming the budget process, the committee disbanded in November without much to show for the effort.

The best solution is simple, if challenging. Congress should stop skirting its constitutional responsibility and set tax and spending levels for the federal government on time. To demonstrate what competent government looks like, and to show what their legislative priorities are heading into a presidential election, House Democrats should prepare a 2020 budget. 

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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