In four years, you could circumnavigate the globe 73 times, make 179 trips to the moon, climb Mount Everest 272 times, and maybe even graduate on time from NYU. But the one thing you couldn’t do in four years, try as you might, is to get Congress to pass a budget.
Sen. Chuck Schumer made headlines last week by promising that Senate Democrats will write and pass a full tax and spending bill by March 1, the deadline for next year’s budget. While passing a budget seems like it ought to be a regular activity for Congress, Schumer’s statement is newsworthy only because it’s been four years since the Senate last passed a budget.
But such negotiations may raise a fairly obvious question: Why is the very act of passing a budget a point of contention in the first place? Isn’t this what Congress should be doing in the first place?
The party in the minority has traditionally used the budget debate to score political points with amendments that mean little but are intended to put senators on record on contentious political issues. In the Senate, proposing a budget gives Republicans an opportunity to attach amendments that would put political pressure on moderate and conservative Democrats, many of whom have an eye on their re-election races in 2014. By not introducing a budget, Democrats can keep their names off plans that detail high spending and high deficits. Meanwhile, they can attack House Republicans for their controversial budget plans.
Republicans have also been trying to score political points recently. House Speaker John Boehner released a cute, brightly colored infographic (pictured above) to emphasize the amount of time since the last budget was passed and to show all the possible things one could do in that time (how any of those activities are relevant to governing—nobody actually knows). House lawmakers also moved forward with a “no bill, no pay” measure that would withhold the pay of any member of the House or Senate whose chamber doesn’t pass a budget this year. While lawmakers will get their paychecks anyway, if a little late, Republicans want people to think that the Democrats’ motivation for passing a budget is because of their pay.
The other issue is that budgets aren’t necessary to keep the government running. Appropriations bills authorize the government to spend money, while budgets provide a long-term framework for spending and revenue. While the Senate is legally required to pass a budget, there are no consequences for not doing so, thus resulting in a lack of passed budgets.
Senate Democrats say the reason they did not pass a budget in past years is because they passed the Budget Control Act in 2011, a bill negotiated to defuse the last showdown over the debt limit, which had placed firm statutory caps on spending through fiscal year 2013. Schumer said that Democrats were planning on passing a new budget anyway in order to set spending levels going forward. And Senate Democrats seem like they’re serious about passing a budget–Schumer’s aide said that they plan to use a budget reconciliation process to fast-track by allowing the Senate to pass it with 51 votes and avoid a potential filibuster. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a budget on time this year?