Congressional Budgets Act as Road Map, But Experts Debate Its Role in Keeping Government Funded

A congressional budget sets out party priorities, even if GOP and Dems never approve a final draft.


The budget wars will begin Tuesday in a turn of events Capitol Hill hasn't seen in a while.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is poised to release his deficit-slashing budget Tuesday, while the Senate will release a competing budget proposal Wednesday after more than 1,000 days without a spending blueprint. But while the fiscal road map is required by the No Budget, No Pay Act if legislators want to see their paychecks for the rest of his year, it's unclear whether it's essential in order to run the government.

[SEE: Political cartoons on the deficit and budget]

Republicans in Congress and out on the campaign trail have blasted Democratic members for abdicating their constitutional responsibility and going years without passing a budget, but congressional experts say the document is more political than essential to keeping the government funded.

Since 2009, the federal government has been funded mostly by continuing resolutions, stopgap measures that allocate money to run the government at a previous year's spending level.

Furthermore, some Democrats have argued that the whole criticism over the Senate not passing a budget is irrelevant because a budget resolution alone isn't legally enforceable. It sets a spending goal, but appropriations bills allocate funding.

Other Democrats insist the 2011 Budget Control Act set specific spending limits for a few years, eradicating the need for another budgetary process until now.

Jimmy Williams, a Democratic strategist, says the budget process is broken. He says the budget document is used more frequently as a vehicle to attach controversial amendments than it is used to outline the country's spending priorities. As a result, members of Congress end up taking tough political votes that provide fodder for 30-second election year ads.

[READ: Paul Ryan's Budget is About One Thing: Medicare]

"If you looked at all the campaign commercials that have every been run for or against congressmen, over 80 percent of those were budget votes," Williams says. "They were budget votes that didn't matter because none of those things have the effect of law.

"It is such a sham. The only people paying attention during budget floor votes are political committees."

But others say the Senate's and House's budgets, out this week, are important documents.

"You have to lay out some flight plan. It is like if you get in an airplane and there is no flight plan, you are in trouble before you get off the ground," says Stephen Hess, a congressional budget expert at the Brookings Institution. "Even though it has been sloppier and uglier than usual, it does not negate its importance or what it is all about."

Hess says the budget is a starting point and even if it is never agreed upon between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, it is an important key to understanding where both parties stand on the financial future of the country.

[READ: Senate Democrats Vow to Hang Ryan Budget Around GOP's Neck]

Not passing a budget has resulted in manufactured fiscal crises that have put Americans outside the Beltway on an unnecessary economic roller coaster, says Patrick Louis Knudsen, senior budget fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"I find it very disturbing that we haven't passed a budget. It is often said that budgeting is governing," Knudsen says. "Everything revolves around fiscal policy and the best way to organize a session of Congress is through the budget process.

"What has happened is that there have been no budget resolutions and the White House and Congress have proceeded with these ad hoc, fly-by-night spending procedures."

It's unlikely Republicans and Democrats will pass a budget both chambers can agree upon, but in the meantime, experts say this first step in outlining the body's priorities is an essential one that could lay the groundwork for a grand bargain of entitlement reform and tax reform down the road.

"A budget lays out the debate and that is not completely useless," Knudsen says. "Budget resolutions can help people change their thinking on fiscal policies."