Think of the president’s budget proposal as the starting pistol for the federal budget process. Once the president proposes, Congress can get on with “disposing.”
When the president’s budget arrives late, it puts Congress in a time crunch—which is not conducive to wise decision-making. And if Congress subsequently fails to meet its own budget deadline, it can put federal agencies in a bind for the new fiscal year. This is particularly problematic for the Pentagon—and for our national security.
By law the president must submit a budget to Congress “on or after the first Monday in January but not later than the first Monday in February of each year.” This year, the presidential transition made it inevitable that the deadline would be missed. The question now is: By how much… and how much harm will result from the delay.
A recent Congressional Research Service analysis found that, in the last four presidential transitions, the average delay for the budget submission was 82 days.
The Trump administration was slowest of the lot, delivering a budget 106 days late. The Obama administration was the second slowest; its budget request was more than three months (94) past due. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were close one another, with 63 and 66 days of delay, respectively.
The clock started ticking for the Biden administration on Feb. 1. With just an average delay, its budget would be submitted on April 24.
Obviously, that is sub-optimum. Every day the budget request is delayed further constricts the amount of time Congress has to exercise its oversight role, a process that itself has become increasingly lethargic.
According to law, Congress has roughly eight months—from the scheduled submission of the president’s budget request in early February to Oct. 1—to appropriate resources for the new fiscal year.
Congress cannot start early, because even experienced lawmakers cannot predict what will be in the budget request. Congressional oversight focused largely on what changes from last year’s budget are being proposed, something that is evident only when the request is in hand.
So, when will the Biden administration deliver its budget?
At her nomination hearing, newly confirmed Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks signaled that it might be coming later rather than sooner. Submitting the budget will be a challenge for the new administration, she said, as she asked for a “little relief and understanding.”
However great the challenge, it is one the Pentagon simply must meet. Even casual observers of defense budget debates have heard about the importance of on-time appropriations and authorization bills. And Defense officials have been quite vocal about the damage caused by continuing resolutions, the funding mechanism passed when there is no appropriation bill on time.
Continuing resolutions cost the military precious time. Many funds controlled by the Pentagon can be spent only during the fiscal year in which they were appropriated. Thus, if the appropriation doesn’t come through until the fourth month of a fiscal year, there are only eight months left for those resources to be allocated. This compresses the timeline for spending decisions.
Further, because the Pentagon cannot start new activities under continuing resolutions, new activities planned for the fiscal year are all delayed until the full-year appropriations become available. Thus, any new program whose execution is dependent on timing is compromised.
This is partially why military leaders stress the importance of having appropriated budgets before the start of the fiscal year. They’ve learned this lesson from hard experience.
The Pentagon has entered every fiscal year between 2010 and 2018—even in those years not marked by a presidential transition or delays in the budget submission—operating under temporary continuing resolutions, without a final defense appropriations bill. Obviously, a timely presidential budget submission does not guarantee that Congress will meet its budget obligations, but late submissions only make it even more challenging for lawmakers to meet their deadline.
For these reasons, the Biden administration should set a goal of beating the record set by the Trump administration in submitting its first budget. By delivering its proposal on or before March 11, the administration would largely eliminate any excuses Congress might employ not to have a defense budget by the start of FY 2022.
The administration is now reviewing a defense budget that has been in development for over a year and a half by the services and Defense Department. Certainly, the new administration must be comfortable with its content, but their review must be conducted with the knowledge that delays incurred are not without penalty.
A good budget received in March or April is better than a perfect one received in May.
This article has been updated to clarify that the average delay for the budget submission is 82 days, rather than 65 days.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 2/28/2021