The matchup between President Obama and Mitt Romney during their first debate could be summed up in simple terms as government versus the private sector. Mr. Romney, a successful businessman with a history of turning around failing companies, took Mr. Obama to task for increasing the country's deficit and generally making our economic woes worse.
One of Mr. Obama's biggest fiscal failures while in office has been his inability to offer a serious budget on time as instructed by law for Congress to act upon. Three of his four budget proposals have been behind schedule. His last two plans were so unserious that not a single senator in a chamber controlled by Democrats could be induced to support them when they were brought up for a vote. This reflects a serious dereliction of executive duty.
Every successful enterprise requires a budget to operate. Government is no exception. More than 30 years ago, Congress, recognizing that a budget is essential to good governance, passed the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to establish a process to bring transparency and discipline to government spending. This is a democracy, after all, and it is the people's money.
In most years, the process works. It does not always bring responsibility to federal spending, but at least the country has some idea of how much is being spent. Granted, budgets are not always completely accurate. The so-called budget surpluses of the Clinton years did not really exist, because government debt actually increased in each of the years President Clinton was in office. Creating a budget is an important process nonetheless. Congress adopts a budget resolution and then, in a process called reconciliation, conforms its spending and revenue bills to its budget.
Given the obvious importance of a budget, and considering the massive deficits our nation faces, one would expect the federal budget to be a subject of some discussion in the presidential campaign and some critical analysis in the press. One might even be forgiven for thinking that preserving the integrity of the federal budget process should be a given in a responsible democracy such as ours.
Mr. Romney spoke of the budget often during the debate, in terms all too familiar for anyone who knows how important it is. The president did not. The federal budget was not a subject he wanted even to mention, much less discuss. His only real observation on the subject came in the context of Mr. Romney's proposals, not his. In that context, the president stated that budgets matter because "budgets reflect choices." He clearly thought that made a good sound bite.
So just how do budgets matter? Let us count the ways.
First, when you spend money, particularly lots of it, a budget is synonymous with responsibility.
A budget makes accountability possible.
Perhaps most important, a budget provides transparency. This is a democracy. Taxpayers have a right to know what their government is going to spend and how it is going to spend it. Even lenders occasionally like to know how much borrowers plan to spend.
Experience in the private sector, as opposed to the Land of Oz otherwise known as Washington, D.C., teaches one quickly that the phrase "budgets matter" needs no explanation. No responsible person would consider operating an enterprise without a budget. In the case of the federal government, passing a budget is the law.
Something seems to be amiss in the Land of Oz. The federal government is in its third year of operating without a budget. The president has taken his budgetary responsibility lightly. The Senate, for all its self- importance, has refused to pass its own budget resolution. It seems that the Democrats there don't want to be associated with the amount of red ink a budget would reflect, so it's more convenient not to have one.
How could that be? How can a government get away with abandoning fiscal responsibility, much less transparency, for three consecutive years? The lack of a budget produced a tax crisis in 2010, a debt-ceiling crisis in 2011 and now a so-called fiscal cliff crisis in 2012. Where is the outrage of a vigilant press?
Thanks to last week's presidential debate, we have at least a hint about why the government does not have a budget. The president said he recognizes that a budget reflects choices. This must be why his government doesn't have one. After all, leadership requires choices.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is a partner at Thompson Coburn law firm and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.