Does Congress Even Need to Pass a Budget?

As much as the Internet might try to fool you, the 2012 political season is about more than just Etch A Sketches and sweater vests. We’re up crap creek in a leaky canoe when it comes to the economy, and as the country heads into the general election, the debt and budget will be at the fore of public debate. 

With competing budget proposals flying in from all sides, much of the political talk these days centers on the endless delays and extensions that Congress has thrown in the path of approving a long-term federal budget.  Which might lead one to wonder: Would it matter if we never passed a budget plan ever again?

What exactly is the federal budget?

The federal budget is one big ’ol nasty bill thousands of pages long that determines the fiscal future of the country over the course of a year by allocating money to various programs like Medicare and Medicaid as well as to things like defense spending. 

When was the last time we had a budget bill that was approved?

April of 2009. But technically it was just an “omnibus spending bill,” and President Barack Obama was none too thrilled to be signing it, citing the excessive number of earmark projects. The following year, Democrats chose not to put forth a budget bill because they deemed it politically imprudent during the hotly contested midterm elections. Same thing happened the next year. You get the point. 

Is it normal for Congress not to pass a federal budget?

Unfortunately, yes. It turns out that we’re a pugilistic people by nature, and when you put money into the mix, things just escalate like a Gambino family reunion. The last time that we had a full-on, real-life federal budget that was signed into law, it was 1997. Bill Clinton was president, and Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House (and only on his second wife). 

So how does the federal government operate without a budget?

With a whole lot of “Continuing Resolutions.” These bills, called “minibuses” by those who are gleefully in the know, keep the government going by feeding the beast with more money every couple of months. The last one that had a fuss surrounding it came late last year, just before the Christmas holidays, when a partial government shutdown loomed. Congress was embroiled in a fight over the payroll tax extension, and the passage of the budgetary measure was used as a bargaining ploy in the tussle. (Congress eventually passed the payroll tax extension in February of this year.)

So if we can go without passing a federal budget, why don’t we?

Because it’s as irresponsible as it sounds. Even though continuing resolutions have become the new norm in Congress, stopgap measures, like margarine, will never be as good as the real thing. Without a cohesive spending plan, programs that receive federal funding aren’t able to plan out their year-long fiscal allocations, and call me crazy, but operating a government under the constant threat of shutdown can’t be good. The passage of the budget has become a political tool for both parties. Speaking of …

What’s the connection between the federal budget and the debt-ceiling fight?

The budget is a laundry list of the ways that the government is going to spend its money, but there’s a rule that says that approval from Congress is needed before additional moola can be borrowed to pay for the programs and departments that help the government keep up with that whole sacred civic contract thing. The debt ceiling is needed to tell the Treasury Department how much money it can borrow. Historically, as a matter of course, Congress raised the debt ceiling without any real contentiousness. During the past decade alone, the ceiling was raised nine times. But the influx of über deficit hawks into Congress during the 2010 midterm elections meant that the typically mundane legislative task of raising the ceiling took on a shrieking aspect. 

What’s the Ryan budget plan?

Paul Ryan, Clark Kent look-alike, Republican wunderkind, and chair of the House Budget Committee, recently introduced a budget plan that’s roundly stirred up ire with Democrats. President Obama has called the plan “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” and “an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country.”  The plan would cut $3.3 trillion from programs designed to help low-income Americans like Medicaid and food stamps. These slashes to social programs account for 62 percent of the proposed budgetary trims.  The Ryan Budget Plan passed in the House last week, though it received no Democratic votes. Mitt Romney called it an “excellent piece of work.”

What’s the Obama budget?

President Obama introduced his budget plan in February, and it’s basically the exact opposite of the Republican one. The marquee feature of the proposal is the Buffett Rule, a provision that raises taxes on households earning more than $1 million. In addition to the tax increases, the president has proposed cuts to military spending and the cessation of tax breaks to oil and gas companies. 

What will happen with the budget over the next few months?

Not a whole lot of substantive work is expected to be done in Congress over the next few months of the campaign. In truth, the competing Republican and Democratic visions of the federal budget are doomed to be nothing more than campaign talking points, providing a cartilage legislative backbone to various stump speeches. 

Let the continuing resolutions roll on. 

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