Passing a federal budget is neither necessary nor wise


As the partial federal government shutdown enters its second week, the calls for a “grand bargain” to solve all and sundry income and revenue issues have returned. The idea that Congress should pass a single, all-encompassing budget, even a balanced one, is a collective mental plague spread by inertia that must be eradicated.

Congress has not passed a full budget to fund the federal government since April 2009. Since then, unable to reach a deal on a full budget, spending has been controlled by successive continuing resolutions, adjusting total government funding levels for short periods of weeks or months each time.

Many say we have to be responsible and pass a real budget. But the truth is the concept of a single federal budget is actually pretty new. While the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 created the first federal budget process, it wasn’t until the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 that the current version of mandatory budget proposals and resolutions was adopted. For the 150-200 years before that, all federal funding was appropriated with specific bills for programs or departments.

A single federal budget is, as we have seen over the last few years, both the cause and casualty of Congressional division. When the entire government is funded with one bill, a stalemate over that bill can be disastrous. Many have argued recently that the founders intended the Constitution to foster inaction and gridlock. And while that is certainly true given the many checks and balances required for most action, the founders didn’t envision the funding of the whole government to be a single process subject to those forces. In fact, the word “budget” does not even appear in the Constitution. (Though some would like it to.)

House Republicans, in an effort to shame Senate Democrats into agreeing to their demands, have actually been (unintentionally?) hearkening back to the original appropriations process. Over the last two weeks the House has passed 11 bills to fund specific parts of the government that are currently shut down. Instead of viewing this as a partisan ploy or negotiating tactic, we should make it standard operating procedure.

It’s no accident that the modern budget process was created in 1974 and the first government shutdown was only two years later in 1976. If government funding were compartmentalized, as it was for the nearly 200 years before then, it simply wouldn’t happen. Sure, there would be disagreements over funding certain programs, even bitter partisan gridlock over it. But it would only affect each program individually, not the entire government. The current shutdown, for example, would never have happened. Even if Republicans stood on their hill and refused to budge on Obamacare, it alone would lack funding. If limited appropriations were the normal process, Harry Reid’s current stonewall of the House’s partial funding bills would be unsustainable.

While a balanced budget amendment would be an improvement over our current situation, it is rooted in a context that is fundamentally flawed. More important is that we stop “budgeting” altogether and resume constitutionally appropriating on a case-by-case basis. Like federalism, this ensures the maximum productivity with minimum conflict.

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