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Congress will miss its budget deadline. That’s not unusual.

Lawmakers have adopted a budget resolution before the April 15 deadline just four times in four decades

President George W. Bush speaks at Airlite Plastics trying to drum up support for his tax cut proposal May 12, 2003 in Omaha, Neb.
President George W. Bush speaks at Airlite Plastics trying to drum up support for his tax cut proposal May 12, 2003 in Omaha, Neb. (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Unlike the annual tax-filing deadline at roughly the same time, Congress’ April 15 target date for agreeing on a joint budget resolution is set to come and go with no practical effect on the everyday lives of Americans.

But that won’t stop the two parties and budget hawks off of Capitol Hill from carping about another year of failure to live up to one of lawmakers’ basic responsibilities.

“[B]udgeting is a fundamental part of governing, and the fact that Congress has not taken this role seriously shows just how broken our budget process has become,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget President Maya MacGuineas said in a statement.

And this year is especially fraught because Washington is stuck in a debate over legislation with a sweeping impact on U.S. households as well as global financial markets: the $31.4 trillion statutory federal borrowing cap that the Treasury Department estimates could start to bite as early as June.

President Joe Biden says he won’t even discuss House GOP proposals to curb spending they want to attach to a debt limit increase without first seeing the Republican budget blueprint. But that budget document is on indefinite hold due to internal House GOP infighting, despite earlier pledges to unveil it prior to the April 15 deadline.

There’s just one problem: Since 1985 when the April 15 target was established, the House and Senate have only agreed on a joint budget resolution by that date on four occasions, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The most recent was 20 years ago, when the GOP Congress in 2003 adopted a budget paving the way for the second of Republican President George W. Bush’s two major tax-cut laws using the reconciliation process. That maneuver, which is only available if Congress adopts a joint budget, makes legislation immune from a Senate filibuster if it adheres to the budget resolution’s targets.

In another indication of how “broken” the process has become, in MacGuineas’ words, Congress seems unlikely to even try to do a joint budget at all this year.

While House Budget Chairman Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, still says the House version of a blueprint is “forthcoming,” Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has given no indication he plans to write one, with prospects for House-Senate agreement remote to begin with at best.

Requirement in name only

That means that in the past quarter-century, Congress will have taken a pass on a budget in almost as many years — 12 — as lawmakers have actually adopted one — 13. It’s become practically optional given other tools Congress has to put internal controls on budget bills, such as “deeming” appropriations limits or statutory spending caps like the ones imposed in 2011 as part of that year’s debt ceiling deal.

Moreover, as MacGuineas points out, even in recent years when the House and Senate have agreed, it’s increasingly been a “shell” budget solely adopted for the purpose of letting lawmakers use the reconciliation process.

The last time Congress adopted a joint budget that wasn’t just a vehicle for reconciliation was a 210-page blueprint in 2015 after the Senate flipped to GOP control, giving Republicans unified control of Congress with Democratic President Barack Obama in the White House.

Since then, it’s been used only to grease the wheels for reconciliation, including Republicans’ 2017 efforts under GOP President Donald Trump to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law, which was unsuccessful, and their $1.5 trillion tax overhaul. After Biden took office in 2021, budget resolutions were used as shells for the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package and for last year’s climate and health care measure.

The 2017, 2021 and 2022 budget blueprints ranged from 20 to 49 pages.

Contrast that record with the first two decades after the modern budget process was established in 1974. Congress produced a joint budget resolution every year until the streak was broken in 1998, a midterm year dominated by the Monica Lewinsky saga ending in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal by the Senate.

Nixon-era origins

Producing an annual blueprint that lays out nonbinding targets for spending and tax revenue in the coming years is prescribed under a 1974 law enacted to try to give Congress more control over an unruly budget process that critics said had few constraints and ceded too much power to the executive branch.

Federal law dating back to the Warren G. Harding administration in 1921 had codified a requirement for the president to submit an annual budget request to Congress. But there was no similar requirement for lawmakers to come up with their own unified document establishing spending and deficit targets.

After years of conflict between the legislative and executive branches culminating with Vietnam War-era spending and tax increases under President Lyndon B. Johnson, followed by President Richard M. Nixon’s large-scale “impoundments” of appropriated funds, lawmakers decided to do what comes most naturally: establish a commission to review the problem.

The legislative vehicle? A debt limit increase.

As part of a 1972 law temporarily raising the debt limit by $65 billion and setting a one-time cap on spending for fiscal 1973, Congress set up the unwieldy-sounding “Joint Committee to Review Operation of Budget Ceiling and to Recommend Procedures for Improving Congressional Control Over Budgetary Outlay and Receipt Totals.”

After reporting back with said recommendations, Congress in 1974 passed and Nixon signed — less than a month before his resignation under threat of impeachment — the law establishing the modern budget process, including the Congressional Budget Office and the House and Senate Budget committees.

Part of that law laid out a May 15 target date for lawmakers to adopt a joint budget blueprint that put them on record as to what the broad outlines of federal spending, taxes, deficits and debt should look like — with the actual legislative details left to other committees to fill in.

In the first two years after the law’s enactment, Congress hit the May deadline, according to records compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Lawmakers never met that deadline again.

The target date was later moved up a month, to April 15, as part of a 1985 deficit control law. Congress has made that deadline only four times — in 1993, 1999, 2000 and the aforementioned 2003.

Lawmakers got so fed up with the missed deadlines, delayed appropriations bills and out-of-control deficits that as part of 2018’s debt ceiling increase and budget caps law, they set up yet another joint committee to recommend potential changes to the process.

The centerpiece of the “Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform” plan was to move to a two-year budget cycle. Noting that the average time needed beyond the April 15 deadline to adopt a budget was 36 days, the panel also opted for a modest two-week postponement of the deadline, to May 1.

The panel deadlocked on its final vote, and the measure never advanced. 

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