The White House role
Law requires the president to submit a budget request before the first Monday in February, although several administrations — including the current one — have missed the deadline by several weeks.
Such proposals amount to little more than a wish list for Congress to consider while drafting budget measures. Congress has the power to control funding levels, beginning with the House and Senate budget committees passing resolutions.
Budget resolutions do not require the president’s signature, and they do not carry the force of law. They simply set spending parameters for broad categories of government, guiding appropriations committees during the next phase of the budgeting process.
That next phase involves the House and the Senate developing a series of appropriations bills to fund specific government programs.
The two chambers have to work out the differences in their separate appropriations bills to come up with unified legislation. Once that happens, the president can sign the reconciliation bill into law.
Washington is expected to finalize a budget by Oct. 1, which is when the government’s fiscal year begins. But the process has broken down in recent years, forcing Congress to adopt short-term spending plans to keep the government operating.
Part of the issue is that the Senate failed to produce a budget resolution after 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. The House has passed budget resolutions since then, but Democrats have viewed the proposals as unpalatable and a sign that Republicans were not serious about negotiating.
“Those proposals were not designed to reach a compromise with the Senate,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar and budget expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “Those were extreme proposals intended to make a political statement.”
Many experts say increased polarization between the two parties — and even within them — has led to the budgeting breakdowns.
“I think that’s the single biggest impediment,” said Steve Bell, a budget expert with the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as a member of the Thrift Savings Plan board during the Reagan administration. “Everyone becomes very afraid to compromise and move away from orthodoxy on issues like taxes.”
Whenever Congress fails to approve a comprehensive budget, the government runs the risk of shutting down. To prevent that from happening, lawmakers since 2010 have passed stopgap funding measures known as “continuing resolutions,” which essentially maintain the status quo until the budgeting process begins anew.
A fresh start
This year, the GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-led Senate both passed budget resolutions, so the regular budgeting process has moved along according to design. Hang-ups could occur in the coming months as lawmakers move into the appropriations phase and try to reconcile their proposals.