Although most citizens may find it hard to believe these days, there is actually a law that establishes not only the process for producing a federal budget but also a timetable. First passed in 1974, the Congressional Budget Act tried to ensure that the different parts of the government would know what they could spend during the coming fiscal year—and would enjoy that certainty early enough to be able to make plans to spend the taxpayer’s money as efficiently and effectively as possible.
That’s the theory, but in practice it hasn’t worked out that way. In fact, the government has not passed all its budget and spending bills on time since 1997.
Late budgets have real and serious consequences. In the absence of timely spending bills, Congress passes “continuing resolutions,” which are short-term band-aid measures to keep the government running. This stop-and-go budgeting creates havoc for government agencies and the citizens who rely on them. It’s hard for federal agencies to plan and make commitments for the long term when they’re worried they might run out of money in three months.
This is no way to run the largest organization in the world – one that spent $3.8 trillion last year.
The dysfunctional budget process also contributes to the general climate of uncertainty that many economists believe restrains businesses from making new investments and hiring additional workers.
That’s why both of us were so thrilled when No Labels’ No Budget, No Pay proposal was included in this February’s debt ceiling extension bill. No Budget, No Pay is as simple as it sounds: If Congress can’t pass a budget on time, members aren’t paid.
No Budget, No Pay provided sorely needed accountability for our legislators. And it worked. Last week saw the delivery of budgets from Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House.
But there’s still a missing piece of the budget puzzle. The president is required by law to submit his budget proposal by the first Monday in February, but President Obama’s budget is late. In fact, this is the first time in history that Congress has released its budgets before the president. And if President Obama releases his budget on April 8, as recent reports suggest, it would be the latest budget presented by a president not in his first year of office since 1921, when record-keeping began.
That’s why we believe it’s time to expand No Budget, No Pay to the executive branch.
If the president doesn’t submit his budget by the first Monday of February – as the law requires – he or she should not be paid until the budget is released and transmitted to Congress.
Although No Budget, No Pay could only apply to future presidents (the Constitution prevents current presidents’ salaries from being increased or decreased), President Obama would take a big step toward more accountability in our government if he agreed to apply No Budget, No Pay to the executive branch.
Congress took its medicine with the No Budget, No Pay Act earlier this year. Now it’s time to hold the presidency to the same standard.
In the meantime, the White House should be showing a lot more urgency about getting its budget out.
Timely budgets won’t guarantee that we will solve our fiscal challenges. But without them, we never will — until there’s a crisis that nobody wants.