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Budget Deadlines: Made To Be Missed

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Updated April 25, 2011

Most American taxpayers know that the normal deadline for filing income tax returns is April 15, but few could tell you that their elected congressional representatives have another task that is supposed to be completed on that day as well. Under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act Congress is supposed to pass an annual budget blueprint (called a budget resolution) by April 15. While most Americans probably meet their deadline under penalty of law, Congress seldom meets its deadline and there is no penalty.

The Budget Act of 1974 attempted to establish order in a process in which there was none at that time. It called for the President to submit his budget request on the first Monday in February - a deadline Presidents have consistently met.

The Budget Act of 1974 required Congress to pass two annual budget resolutions (it later was decreased to one) and set timetables for finishing budget work. The budget resolution specifies spending levels in broad areas and may direct congressional committees to find ways to save money. Initially the date for completing the budget resolution was May 15, but later the deadline was changed to April 15.

It’s a deadline Congress seldom has met. Since 1974, Congress has only succeeded in meeting its statutory deadline for passing a budget resolution six times. Sometimes it’s months late. Sometimes, as in Fiscal 2011, Congress doesn’t pass a budget resolution at all.

Another section of the Budget Act of 1974 states that Congress cannot consider any annual appropriations bills until it adopts an overall budget blueprint. An appropriations bill provides funding for programs that are subject to annual review by the Congress. In Fiscal 2011 there should have been 12 appropriations bills.

Since it was understood that sometimes Congress might have difficulty meeting the budget resolution deadline and that the appropriations bills take time to create, the Act does provide that the House can begin considering annual appropriations bills after May 15, even if no budget resolution is adopted.

In an effort to provide motivation to keep the budget timeline on track, the Budget Act has a provision stating that the House of Representatives cannot adjourn for more than three calendar days during the month of July unless it has considered its version of the annual spending measures. This essentially means that the House should not be able to leave the nation’s capital for the July 4 recess if it hasn’t passed the appropriation bills.

How does the House deal with this issue? It simply waives the rule - without penalty.

Then there’s the final deadline of the year. Congress is supposed to pass all of its annual appropriation bills by the end of the fiscal year, which is September 30. Congress almost never meets that deadline. As an example, in Fiscal 2011, Congress never passed the 12 individual bills. Instead, President Obama was sent one big appropriations bill that combined all 12 bills and it was sent to him more than six months after the start of the fiscal year.

President Obama signed it on April 15, 2012. Coincidentally, that’s the same date Congress was supposed to have passed its Fiscal 2012 budget blueprint, but Congress has missed the deadline again.

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