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Surprise! There’s Actually Good News About the Budget

It’s pretty common these days for those who follow, analyze and comment on the federal budget to be almost incessantly negative. That’s not really surprising or unwarranted given the deficit, national debt, quality of the ongoing debate and the poor budget outlook. Indeed, given all this, we would be called hopelessly unrealistic (at best) if we were anything but negative.

[IMGCAP(1)]That’s why it’s so refreshing to be able to talk about a positive development for a change: Congress adopted a budget resolution this year.

This shouldn’t be something that needs to be celebrated and commemorated, let alone the topic of a column. There’s been a legal requirement for more than three decades — ever since the Congressional Budget Act was adopted in 1974 — that Congress adopt a budget resolution every year. By now this should be as routine and unremarkable as the Independence Day recess. The annual vote adopting a budget resolution shouldn’t even be mentioned in passing.

But despite the legal requirement, somewhere along the line Congress adopting an annual budget became optional. A vote in favor of a larger-than-preferred deficit simply became too hard for too many Members, and the reconciliation instructions included in a budget resolution that would have reduced the deficit were thought to be even more politically damaging. When Congress realized there was no legal penalty for not complying with the Budget Act and that there could be less political damage by not adopting a budget than from voting for or against the spending decreases and revenue increases it might assume, annual budget resolutions became less and less likely.

This was especially true in election years when, for all of the obvious reasons, voting for a budget resolution could have created a number of very difficult campaign issues.

But all of that changed the first week in June this year, when first the Senate and then the House approved the budget resolution conference report for fiscal 2009.

This was the first time since 2000 that Congress approved a budget resolution in an election year. It’s also one of the few times this decade that a budget resolution conference report has been adopted at all.

It also defied conventional wisdom. It wasn’t that long ago that Democratic leadership aides were downplaying the possibility that a budget resolution conference report acceptable to the House and Senate could be agreed to this year. Even some Budget Committee staffers I spoke with started to think it might not happen, especially when other legislation, like the farm bill, kept getting in the way. As it became clear that the two procedural things for which you need a budget resolution — reconciliation and individual appropriations — were not likely to happen this year, some increasingly questioned whether a budget resolution was worth the time and effort it would take.

That makes this year’s conference report an achievement worth mentioning.

I’m not the only one who noticed what was done against the odds. Even though he opposed the fiscal 2009 conference report that the House eventually approved, Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) congratulated Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) during the floor debate for getting it done, especially in an election year, and he admitted that it was a rare occurrence. According to the Congressional Record, Ryan’s exact words were: “Congress has had a pretty splotchy, spotty track record on this lately, and the chairman deserves accolades for keeping this process going, keeping this process alive.”

Recognition also came from former high-level Senate Republican budget aide Bill Hoagland, who told the Washington Post on May 14 (that is, three weeks before it was adopted) that Congress getting a budget resolution this year would be “a major accomplishment that we weren’t able to achieve when we were in the majority.”

So strike up the band, stop and smell the roses, or do whatever else you do when something worth celebrating happens.

But don’t go crazy; this deserves to be celebrated with a tall glass of sparkling water rather than a flute of champagne.

Yes, it’s a good thing that a budget resolution conference report was adopted this year. After all, that’s what the law requires. But this year’s resolution doesn’t anticipate making a great deal of progress on any of the current spending or taxing issues, and there would have been no conference report had it tried to do so.

It’s also not a budget resolution that provides an accurate projection of the long-term budget outlook. Although it gets there in a different way, the resolution matches the White House’s long-term budget outlook that was widely derided when it was released in January.

Nevertheless, the celebration should begin if for no other reason that the adoption of a budget resolution conference report for the second year in a row demonstrates a commitment to the budget process by the leadership that hasn’t been evident in recent years.

In that sense, the adoption of a budget resolution this year is a throwback to the earliest days of the budget process. Back then the leadership supported the process so that it would be in place and operating when it was needed and the votes existed to do something.

That seems to be much of the motivation this year as well, and that makes the adoption of the budget resolution this year a positive sign for what may be ahead.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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