The Problem with the Federal Budget Is That There’s No Federal Budget

The dysfunctional federal budget process is the fault of politicians who like spending money without accountability.


What He Said: “We have two weeks to negotiate a budget deal that must also address a host of other items, including the CHIP, community health centers, disaster aid, and of course, the Dreamers.” —  Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), 1/3/2018

What Should Be Said: The reality is there is no federal “budget” in the sense that the average American thinks of a family or even corporate budget. It’s been a long time since the federal government truly decided ahead of time how much money it was going to spend in the upcoming fiscal year, and on what. The result is uncontrolled spending driven by last-minute grandstanding and deal making, where politicians hold the threat of a “government shutdown” over each other’s heads if their favored programs don’t receive funding. They also use it to slip significant policy changes into unrelated budgetary matters.

It’s not like Congress hasn’t had time to have these discussions; the deadline is their own fault. The issue in question is the incomplete Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which will set spending for a year that began back on Oct. 1, 2017. This means the federal government is already a more than a quarter of the way through the year this budget is intended to manage. The deadline Sen. Schumer references is the sunset date for the third Continuing Resolution of FY2018, a legislative tool that essentially lets the government operate on autopilot under the previous year’s budget.

In fact, Congress didn’t even set a theoretical total amount for federal discretionary spending for this budget year until after the year had already begun.

It should also be said that these budgets —  whenever they are finally turned into law — only impact discretionary spending. That’s a lot of money, estimated to total $1.2 trillion this year. But it’s dwarfed by “mandatory” spending on entitlement programs. For instance, Social Security alone will cost roughly $1 trillion, and Medicare and other programs that operate largely outside the budget process will add another $1.5 trillion to the bill.

Additionally, in recent years, legislators have also taken to moving more and more discretionary spending outside what little budget process remains through gimmicks such as “emergency” appropriations and the large annual “Overseas Contingency Operations” spending bill for counterterrorism operations, at $87 billion this year. (The U.S. Government Accountability Office has called on the Defense Department to move much of this spending back into the main defense budget, but the GAO dryly noted, “The department has not, as yet, responded to our recommendation.”)

This lack of a timely and comprehensive budget makes it harder to address the fundamental challenge of our government spending more money than it has, and growing a federal debt that threatens the long-term viability of our economy. The simple process of developing a budget for discretionary spending ahead of each fiscal year enforces a basic level of transparency and accountability; the absence of a discretionary budget removes a practical limitation on the size, scope and cost of the federal government.

In the past, the way the annual discretionary budget process would work is that the President would send Congress a draft budget setting out his vision, which the House and Senate would use as a starting point to set the total amount of discretionary spending for the upcoming fiscal year.

That total was split up between a dozen appropriations subcommittees in each chamber, which would work out the details for how much would be spent on which programs in their areas of responsibility. The resulting budget bill from each subcommittee would be negotiated between the House and Senate to resolve differences, then signed into law by the President. This meant that each Senator or Representative would have a chance to vote on and the President could sign or veto a bill containing, for instance, the Interior and Environment budget, or the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development budget. Voters and interest groups could hold their elected officials accountable for their votes on those specific topics.

But over the past few decades, the practice of individual detailed budget bills developed by subcommittees began to fade, and larger “omnibus” bills that combined multiple budgets became more popular. Lobbyists and politicians of both parties also began to realize the deadline imposed by the recurring threat of a “government shutdown” gave them leverage to accomplish significant policy goals that might not pass both chambers and be signed by the President on their own merits as standalone legislation.

The best-known example of this is probably the law that lets terminated employees continue paying for their own health insurance through their former employer. It’s popularly known as “COBRA” after the legislation that created it, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. That same law also did everything from setting tobacco price support levels to funding public television to propping up Amtrak to requiring that offshore drilling rigs be manufactured in the United States. With just one vote, all these unrelated policies became law — and individual Congressmen could claim to voters that they’d opposed any one of them, but had to vote for the whole deal.

This is the kind of “budget deal” that Schumer referenced, where legislators trade their votes on a giant spending bill that’s already three months late in return for pet programs and policy initiatives. They can do so knowing they’re insulated from easy voter accountability on specific provisions because they’ve bundled the entire federal checkbook for the year into one vote, with a “government shutdown” on tap if the vote fails.

One Senator said something close to what should have been said at the delayed beginning of the current budget negotiations. As the Senate debated its FY2018 budget in November, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said, “This is the biggest hoax cast upon the American people ever that this budget process even exists. Unless we create a real budget process, which this is not, our country’s fiscal situation is going to continue to go down the tube.”


John C. Mozena is a communicator working to spread liberty and free markets. He has been a vice president at a free-market think tank, spent two decades in a variety of private-sector marketing and communications roles and began his career as a newspaper reporter and editor covering health care policy. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.


What Should Be Said shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.

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