Almost 1,000 days have elapsed since both chambers of Congress passed a budget for the federal government. Our constitution “shackles” Congress with only a few requirements. Passing a budget is at the top of the list. For the first two years of President Obama’s term, Democrats controlled all three branches of government, with strong majorities in the House and Senate. It would have been easy to pass a budget with the Democrats’ vision for wise disbursement of federal funds and for curtailing the escalating levels of federal debt. That didn’t happen.
The GOP won the House by a significant margin in 2010. In fairly short order, they enacted a budget and sent it to the Senate. There it still sits. There was no requirement that the Senate fawn over the House budget. It got few Democratic votes when it passed the House, and it was criticized by liberals for being too draconian and by conservatives for not doing enough to reduce spending and drive down the national debt. But at least the House did its duty and passed a spending plan for the federal government.
That is what a budget document is: a central spending plan for the federal government. It sets parameters for spending. Individual appropriations bills (defense, transportation, energy, etc.) determine exactly how the money is spent within the limits set by the budget document. Budgets aren’t rocket science. Most households, businesses and organizations have one. It is a basic exercise in fiscal discipline in which a reasonable estimate of revenues available is coupled with a reasonable estimate of expenditures and, if possible, a goal for savings.
Back during the days when Congress acted more like an organization than feuding sects of warlords, budgets were enacted almost every year. The House passed its version, the Senate did the same, the President got his input if he wanted it (this one doesn’t) and differences were worked out between the entities. Once the main budget framework was adopted, it was easier to move appropriations bills through the process.
Now we have entered the age when there is no budget. Government is financed by “continuing resolutions.” Adjustments are made to the ancient relics of the last budget passed. There is no real “plan” for spending going forward, based upon logical or rational blueprints for revenue growth (or loss) and debt management. The absence of a true federal budget enhances the fiscal chaos that now characterizes the budget “debate” in Washington.
When there is no discipline, “debate” focuses more on wrath than reason. The D.C. scene reminds me of the 1954 William Golding classic, “Lord of the Flies.” His novel chronicles the deterioration of discipline among a group of young male students who become castaways on an island after their airplane crashes at sea. Before their rescue, their animal instincts and intra-group power plays almost lead to their extinction. From a fiscal standpoint, that is about where we find Congress and the Obama administration today.
The problems stemming from divided government in Washington won’t be fixed soon—certainly not before the 2012 elections. What would help, at least on the fiscal front, would be for the Senate to enact a budget and have all parties then at least attempt to obey the constitution and hammer out a compromise between the House and Senate versions. Few might like the final outcome, but at least the folks back home might get their hopes up just a bit that the individuals representing them in Washington are starting to understand that acting like a bunch of unsupervised child castaways won’t solve any problems and will only create more.