Strike Up the Band: 3 Budget Resolutions in 3 Straight Years

Posted March 30, 2009 at 3:51pm

I shouldn’t have to write this week’s “Fiscal Fitness.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Please understand. I’m not complaining about having the opportunity to write the column. I’m also certainly not upset about Roll Call continuing to think the federal budget is important enough that it needs to devote some serious real estate to the topic. And the fact that I could be writing about the soon-to-start baseball season or the ridiculous casting on this season’s “Dancing With the Stars— instead of fiscal policy doesn’t merit a protest.

But the fact that Congress looks like it’s going to adopt a budget resolution for the third year in a row not only shouldn’t need to be the subject of a column, it shouldn’t even be the slightest bit newsworthy. Instead, it should be so routine that it’s not notable in any way or by anyone.

But it absolutely is newsworthy, notable and anything but routine.

If, as looks likely, the House and Senate agree on a fiscal 2010 budget resolution, it will be the first time since the start of this decade that Congress will have adopted a budget in three consecutive years. That makes what may happen this year something worth celebrating.

Budget resolutions are not supposed to be optional because the Congressional Budget Act requires Congress to adopt one each year. But there is no legal penalty for not complying with the statutory requirement. For example, Representatives and Senators don’t have their salary withheld until a budget resolution is adopted and are not indictable if it never happens.

There also is seldom, if ever, a political penalty: Few people have ever voted against an incumbent because Congress failed to pass a budget resolution. Indeed, few voters ever know when, or if, a budget resolution has been put in place.

That’s why, even though the law requires it to be done, there was little reticence on Capitol Hill not to adopt an annual budget resolution for fiscal 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 when doing so was considered politically damaging. In some years the leadership decided simply not to bother at all. In other years the leadership gave up when getting an agreement became too difficult or time-consuming, or when the politics of not adopting a budget resolution turned out to be easier than voting for the compromise needed to pass it.

In addition to the simple fact that this would be the first time in about a decade years that Congress may agree to a budget resolution conference report for three consecutive years, two other things will make this noteworthy if it happens.

First, this year’s budget resolution is the exact type of bill that the leadership in the recent past was likely to avoid. Although the record-high nominal deficits included in the bills approved last week by the House and Senate Budget committees are justified given the leading role fiscal policy has to play in the current economic environment, in the past they would have chilled much of the enthusiasm for adopting a budget resolutions. The fact that the leadership is not stopping the budget resolutions from moving ahead this year may indicate an important change in budget politics that by itself is noteworthy.

Second, the fact that a budget resolution may be adopted for the third year in a row and that adopting budget resolutions may be becoming routine may indicate that a commitment to budgeting that hasn’t existed in Washington for the first time for some time.

What is included in a budget resolution is obviously still far more important than merely having one. But a perceived or actual commitment to comply with the budget rules and procedures will make it far more difficult for anyone to get around them. Given the enormous budget challenges that will exist when the economy has recovered, this is a development that, if real, should be welcomed with open arms by everyone interested in what lies ahead.

The commitment to budgeting that would be evident from Congress quickly adopting a budget resolution conference this year would have other important consequences as well. For example, the House and Senate would be able to move ahead much earlier with the debate on the fiscal 2010 appropriations and would have a much better chance of getting them adopted by the start of the fiscal year. In light of recent history and because of the presidential transition the delay in getting the details of the president’s budget, this by itself would be an important accomplishment.

For the doubters among us, it’s important to note that the fiscal 2010 budget resolution conference report has not yet been agreed to and it’s certainly possible that the effort to adopt it could take a great deal of time or even collapse completely. The budget resolutions agreed to last week by the Budget committees have comparatively small numerical differences that should be relatively easy to compromise, but they differ substantially on whether reconciliation instructions should be included. Assuming the House and Senate leave that difference in place later this week when they consider what the committees approved, that could well be the part of the conference that stops the three-year streak from happening.

In some ways, therefore, the impact of Congress adopting a budget resolution this year could be far more important than what actually is in it. If it happens, you should celebrate at least as much as if your favorite team wins the pennant or celebrity does an excellent fox trot.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.