Congress Increasingly Fails to Budget

Feb 25, 2020 | Budget Process

The Congressional budget process calls for an annual budget resolution to make explicit the tradeoffs between discretionary spending, direct spending, revenue, deficits, and debt. Unfortunately, recent Congresses have not adhered to the budget process, and policymakers have instead allowed the federal budget process to virtually collapse.

Among the ways the budget process has broken down:

  • Congress regularly misses budget deadlines. A concurrent budget resolution is supposed to be approved each year by April 15 (prior to 1986 the deadline was May 15). Since 1975, this deadline has only been met 6 times. The House has only passed its budget resolution 16 times by then and the Senate has only passed a budget resolution by then 20 times.
  • Budget resolutions have become less common. Between 1975 and 1997, a budget resolution was approved every single year. However, budget resolutions have only been approved 11 out of the last 22 years. Since 2010, only three budget resolutions have been approved, and none has been abided by or implemented in any meaningful way.
  • While the budget process has been breaking down over decades, it has gotten much worse in recent years. In 2018, for the first time under the modern budget process, neither the House nor the Senate voted on or approved a budget resolution. This failure was repeated in 2019. In other words, there was no budget even considered on the floor for fiscal years 2019 or 2020.
  • Lawmakers appear uneager to follow the budget process. It has been reported that the House Budget Committee will not consider a budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, and the Senate Budget Committee may not either. Given our terrible fiscal situation, with near-record deficits and debt, this is a tremendous abdication of responsibility.

The inability of Congress, especially the Budget Committees, to do their job, leaves the country without an explicit fiscal framework. This failure has made it easier for policymakers to enact massive debt-increasing legislation without a plan to finance them. Comprehensive budget process reform is badly needed to improve this situation. In the meantime, Congress should follow – rather than ignore – the process currently in place, and unquestionably should work to pass a budget this year.

Budget Breakdown

The Budget Act requires the Senate Budget Committee to report a budget by April 1 and both chambers to agree on a concurrent resolution by April 15 (May 15 prior to 1986). Unfortunately, these deadlines are often missed by the individual chambers, let alone both agreeing.

Of the 45 years since 1975, the House has passed a resolution by the deadline 29 times, the Senate 25 times, and both chambers have agreed to a concurrent resolution on time only six times.

Yet despite these missed deadlines, Congress ultimately put forward a budget resolution every single year between 1975 and 1997.

But since 1998 and especially since 2010, the situation has gotten much worse. Over that time period, Congress has failed to enact a concurrent budget resolution 11 times – 7 times since 2010. In 7 of those years, the Senate did not even pass its own budget resolution; in three years, neither the House nor Senate passed a budget resolution.

Source: Based on tables from the Congressional Research Service (alternate link).
*The deadline to complete action on the budget resolution is currently April 15, but it was May 15 prior to 1986.

The past two years were worse still – neither chamber even considered a budget resolution on the floor for the first time since the modern budget process was established. And this year, it is possible that neither budget committee will approve a budget, which has never happened in the history of the modern budget process.

To be sure, a number of budget alternatives have been proposed outside of the Budget Committees over the years. The Republican Study Committee, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the Congressional Black Caucus regularly propose their own budgets. In the past, the Blue Dog Coalition has proposed alternative budgets, though it hasn’t in recent years. And in 2012, a bipartisan budget resolution was put forward by Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) and former Representative Steve LaTourette (R-OH).

While these efforts are important, only a budget resolution approved by both chambers of Congress signals agreement on a fiscal framework. The congressional budget process begins with the chair of each Budget Committee proposing a budget resolution and guiding it through those committees. The leadership of each chamber must be willing to support the chair at the committee level, to facilitate floor consideration, and to negotiate with the other body.

A Country Needs a Budget

Congress is unlikely to make much of an effort to approve a budget resolution for FY 2021. House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) has indicated he is unlikely to propose a resolution in committee, let alone take one to the floor and reconcile it with a Senate proposal.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) has called for approving a bipartisan budget resolution that would serve as a broad governance document. While this is an admirable goal, it is ambitious given how rare bipartisan budget resolutions are and given the current hyper-partisanship in Washington.

It is clear that the current congressional budget process is broken. Members in both chambers and both parties, and in particular, the leaders of the Budget Committees need to recognize the critical responsibility of budgeting and to recognize the importance of the budget resolution as a tool for setting priorities. That starts with putting forward a budget.