Deadlines Are Made To Be Broken

 Here's a good one for you: Using the House legislative calendar as a guide, as of March 10, Congress will have 16 legislative days to enact a budget resolution to meet its April 15 statutory deadline. Sixteen days? Congress can't even name a Post Office after someone in 16 days. Under the Budget Act of 1974 and its later amendments, Congress is required to complete work on the resolution by that date; if the House and Senate fail to meet the deadline, appropriators are allowed to begin work on their annual spending bills on May 15. The goal, of course, is to finish all spending bills by Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year.

Barring an unforeseen breakout of bipartisan comity, Congress will miss the April 15 deadline this year. In fact, Congress cannot even enact a final budget blueprint until the budget reconciliation-health reform bill is signed by the President. If it did, it would void the reconciliation instructions contained in the Fiscal 2010 budget plan.

Missing budget deadlines is not a new development. The Congressional Research Service reports that between Fiscal 1976 and Fiscal 2010, Congress met that deadline only six times. On average, the House and Senate fail to meet the April 15 deadline by more than a month. In Fiscal 1991, they missed the deadline by a whopping 177 days, finally passing a resolution on Oct. 9, 1990.

A late budget resolution can wreak havoc over the rest of the legislative year. If appropriators wait for a budget plan to start their work, their markups and eventual floor action on the spending bills may be delayed. If they are delayed much, Congress will have to pass continuing resolutions to keep the federal government open. In an election year, with members anxious to go home and campaign, that may result in hasty and even sloppy work. Congress could quickly pass spending bills and go home or even pass a continuing resolution that lasts until after the election. Then, Congress would return to finish the bills.

The deadline debacle is another indication that the budget process is broken. Congress cannot finish its business on time and ultimately makes spending decisions based on what is expedient and what allows the House and Senate to adjourn at the end of the year. Is it any wonder that the federal deficit and debt are spiraling out of control?

The process needs fixing. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform is examining the budget process and later this year will make its recommendations on how to best repair the process.