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It’s February: Do You Know Where the 2010 Budget Is?

The Congressional Budget Act requires the president to submit to Congress a budget for the coming fiscal year between the first Monday in January and the first Monday in February. This year, that one-month period ended Feb. 2. So why, as is often the case, didn’t anyone involved with the budget have to spend Super Bowl Sunday trying to read through the Obama plan at the same time everyone else with a TV was munching on chips? And why isn’t most of today’s edition of Roll Call devoted to coverage of what the White House proposed?

[IMGCAP(1)]The short answer is that in years like this one, when a president from one political party replaces a president from another, it’s not clear to which president the Congressional Budget Act provision really applies. Inauguration Day falls about two-thirds of the way through the one-month period, so the provision could apply to both the outgoing and incoming presidents.

Or to neither.

In some years both the outgoing and incoming presidents have submitted budgets to Congress. In other years the outgoing president puts together only a current services budget, that is, a program-by-program projection based on the assumption that there will be no changes in existing spending and tax laws that includes no policy choices for anyone to ignore. This baseline budget sometimes is released publicly; other times it never sees the light of day.

Sometimes the change from one administration to the next is seamless enough that the new president is able to get a real budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. For example, when Ronald Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, the machinery was already in place for George H.W. Bush’s administration to get a budget to Congress only three days after the statutory deadline, especially because the new president was largely continuing the fiscal policies of his predecessor.

But what usually happens is that the provision requiring a budget to be submitted by the first Monday in February is ignored and neither the outgoing nor incoming president tries to meet the deadline.

Legally, this may happen because the one-month period starts during one presidency and ends during the next. That allows both administrations to claim the provision applies to the other.

As Jimmy Carter discovered, politically, it makes little sense for the outgoing president to submit a budget to a Congress that isn’t going to take action on it anyway. Carter decided to release a final budget that showed what he would have done had he been re-elected. But his relatively large increase in military spending, which he proposed in part to enable Democrats to say that the even larger Pentagon budget proposed by Reagan wasn’t that much higher than what would have happened had Carter stayed, had little or no effect on the public perception that Republicans were stronger on the military than Democrats.

But the legal and political considerations take a back seat to the real reason we don’t yet have a budget this year: It’s totally impractical.

It’s actually very hard to imagine what those who crafted the Congressional Budget Act were thinking by keeping the first- Monday-in-February provision in place in a year like this one. A president who either isn’t running for re-election or is defeated is hardly ever thinking about what should be proposed for the coming fiscal year — which begins more than eight months after they leave office. If the president is not running for office, the White House and other officials involved in putting the next year’s budget together are thinking more about personal and governmental transitions than in a plan that will be seen more often as something heavy enough to keep a door open than a serious proposal.

The bigger practical problem, however, is for the incoming president. There are usually only about two weeks from Inauguration Day to the first Monday in February, and that’s just not enough time for him or her to decide what to do, convert that it into programs, crosswalk the program changes into numbers and then translate the whole thing into the multi-document presentation that typically makes up the president’s budget. The deadline’s impracticality becomes even more obvious when you consider that — even if the work starts during the transition — Cabinet members aren’t officially in place until January or February, sub-Cabinet positions typically wait for the top positions to be filled and appointees seldom, if ever, even enter their departments’ buildings until they are confirmed.

It’s not hard, therefore, to understand why no presidential budget was submitted by the deadline. First, the outgoing Bush administration didn’t want to go through the motions and, for all of the practical reasons, the incoming Obama team isn’t ready to make it happen.

But President Barack Obama also has other reasons to wait to submit a budget. The stimulus plan now working its way through Congress will have an overwhelming impact on the 2009 and 2010 numbers, and any budget submitted before that’s final, or close to final, will have to be immediately revised anyway. The same may be true of the new bank bailout plan that could be announced as early as this week.

As other newly elected presidents have done, the word on the street is that the Obama administration is now planning to submit a 100-page summary of its fiscal 2010 budget toward the end of this month and to then submit the multi-volume set sometime in April. Given all of the usual things that have to happen to get a budget ready along with the stimulus and other issues that need to be settled before the numbers are in any way meaningful, that actually makes a great deal of sense.

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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