Restoring Regular Order

By / 12.14.2013

The Murray-Ryan deal sailed through the House yesterday, raising hopes that Washington may be returning, however fitfully, to “regular order” when it comes to the federal budget.

At a time when fiscal brinksmanship and 11th hour continuing resolutions have become the new normal, it is easy to forget the years prior when passing an annual budget was something that lawmakers were eager to undertake. They looked forward to their budget debates and hearings, as these events allowed them not only to engage in their oversight duty, but also to perform their theater. These were their stages to affect policy and gain public recognition.

What would it mean to restore regular order on budgeting? Although Congress has the ultimate responsibility for passing a budget, the process actually begins in the executive branch. The first step is for the President to submit his budget early next year.

For decades, federal agencies have submitted initial budget requests to the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) for review in the early fall. Budgetary decisions are then made by the OMB Director and are passed back to the agencies. The agencies may appeal these decisions, but have a short window of time to do so. This process is presumably happening right now.

Once final decisions are made, the agencies revise their budget requests accordingly to be included in the President’s comprehensive budget submission to Congress, which is required to be submitted by the first Monday in February for the fiscal year beginning October 1st. That is the way the process has worked since passage of the 1974 Budget Act.

This year, President Obama missed the deadline for submitting a budget to Congress, marking the fourth time in five years he has been late. Former Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan were late once, and Bill Clinton was late twice.

Owing to negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and taxes, and the implementation of the sequester cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, Obama did not submit his budget to Congress until April 10, 2013. By that time, the House had already prepared its budget proposal, and the Senate had proposed a budget for the first since 2009. Yet, the House refused to go to conference with the Senate before receiving the President’s budget.

This is a problem, since Congress has a rhythm and choreography following receipt of the President’s Budget. When budget submissions are late from the administration, it throws the whole congressional policy pipeline off balance, invites non-procedural issues, and ultimately encourages continuing resolutions to fund the government.

From the earliest days of his Presidency, President Obama has suggested broad principles on major issues for Congress to consider. But, Congress–on both sides of the aisle—typically wants the White House to send specific legislative proposals to Capitol Hill, as previous presidents traditionally have done. Usually, these proposals were subsequently “Introduced by Request” by the appropriate Committee Chairman. The legislation then was a “marker” or “guide” that prompted full hearings, bill markups, and finally congressional passage.

President Obama has rarely done this, preferring to stand aloof from the rough and tumble of legislative bargaining. To be sure, House Republicans’ knee-jerk opposition to whatever this president proposes has discouraged the White House. But still, the effort must be made, if for no other reason than to highlight GOP obstructionism. White House staff, however, seems to always be in retail campaign mode and have failed to understand this dimension of policy governance—and for this the President is paying the price among the public, on Capitol Hill, and in the press. For example, Bloomberg BusinessWeek wrote recently of “the Administration’s penchant for secrecy and a reluctance to consult lawmakers” as a concern.

Washington urgently needs to break the impasse of partisan budget gridlock and short-term fixes, which are fueling economic uncertainty and impeding the recovery. If the Senate also approved the two-year Murray-Ryan budget, Congress will have taken a modest but significant step back from the fiscal brink.

President Obama can do his part by sending his FY2015 budget to Congress on time or even earlier with his January State of the Union address. This send a forceful message to Capitol Hill that the President is determined to return to regular order, engage directly in fiscal negotiation and compromise, and get budget deals done on time.