- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2018

The GOP-led Congress failed to pass a budget by April 15 this year, violating a federal law and earning another black mark on the party’s record of fiscal stewardship.

Top budget-writers insist they still want to write a budget this year, but there have been few signs of action and analysts and watchdogs said it’s looking like most Republican lawmakers are content to duck the contentious fight in an election year.

“The fact that we miss the deadline for passing a budget regularly is a really terrible sign about our process,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But the fact that we may well go through this year without passing a budget at all is just an unimaginable abdication of leadership.”

Under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, Congress is supposed to pass a budget blueprint by April 15 to give appropriators several months to fill in the non-binding spending levels before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

But there’s no real penalty for missing deadlines — the last time Congress actually met the April 15 deadline was 2003. Oftentimes a budget comes late, and sometimes it never comes at all.

Since gaining control of both chambers in 2015, Republicans passed a budget in 2015, failed to pass one in 2016, passed two budgets last year and are struggling this year.

“The missed April 15th deadline is proof of a broken budget process in which deadlines are unenforceable and ultimately unimportant to lawmakers,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who said he’d be “stunned” if Congress passes a new budget resolution this year.

The pressure has been lessened by a deal approved earlier this year that already set spending caps for fiscal year 2019, fulfilling one of the major duties of a budget.

But lawmakers can’t avoid new forecasts of looming trillion-dollar deficits spurred in part by the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax-cut law and the recent $1.3 trillion spending bill, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group.

“I think that there’s a lot of hypocrisy,” Mr. Bixby said. “I think it is incumbent on Congress and the president to lay out a plan for bringing this under control.”

Rep. Steve Womack and Sen. Mike Enzi, the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees, have acknowledged the political difficulties of outlining a balanced-budget plan.

But aides say those plans are still in place for this year. They also downplayed the blown April 15 deadline, calling it a non-binding guidepost. They also said they were waiting for the Congressional Budget Office’s report last week showing deep deficits for the next decade.

“Chairman Womack is committed to passing an FY19 budget resolution out of committee,” said Sarah Corley, a spokeswoman for the House Budget Committee. “He is working with leadership to ensure the whole House can do the same.”

Lawmakers could use a 2019 budget plan to cut spending immediately through a fast-track tool known as reconciliation, which would allow Republicans to bypass a potential filibuster in the Senate.

Republicans used reconciliation in the two budget resolutions they passed last year to fast-track their efforts to repeal Obamacare and pass the tax cuts.

“Reconciliation is a tool that is most certainly available, and certainly should be used,” Ms. MacGuineas said. “Given how bad we just made the fiscal situation, this is a chance to start to turn the ship around.”

House Republicans have expressed an interest in pursuing entitlement and welfare reforms this year through a GOP-only reconciliation process, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shot that idea down.

The House also voted on a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution last week, but it failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to move the process forward.

Stan Collender, a longtime expert on federal budget issues, was also skeptical that enough Republicans would want go on record in an election year on a budget blueprint that outlined specific longer-term cuts to major social welfare programs.

“You mean they’d have to vote to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? I don’t think so — not before the election,” said Mr. Collender, who is also a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

The recent two-year spending deal also empaneled a joint select committee on budget process reform, which holds its first public meeting Tuesday and is eyeing ways to further incentivize Congress to get its work done on time.

Mr. Riedl said the joint committee could be productive — but that members have to keep expectations in check.

“If they avoid ideological fights about the size of government, and instead focus on making sure that Congress can pass budgets and finish appropriations bills, I think they can find a bipartisan path forward,” he said.

Some potential ideas could include changing the Oct. 1 budget deadline to Jan. 1 to give lawmakers a few more months to finish their work, and switching to a two-year schedule to try to remove the contentious process from the height of campaign season.

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