Chronic tardiness on budget matters could prove costly

Posted: Jan. 21, 2013 7:54 pm Updated: Feb. 15, 2013 7:15 pm

THE WHITE House has informed Congress that its fiscal 2014 budget, due to be submitted to Congress next month, will be late.

No surprise there. The law requires the president to send his projected annual budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. That would be Feb. 4 this year.

With some legitimacy, the White House Office of Management and Budget blamed the delay on the wrangling over the "fiscal cliff," which wasn't concluded until Jan. 2. The office says it is working "diligently" to ready the 2014 budget.

But, with a helping hand from an uncooperative Congress, none of the annual budgets for which the Obama administration has been fully responsible has arrived on time. His first budget didn't arrive until early May and the next two were late, but at least they arrived in the right month.

Congress then rewrites that budget and appropriates the funds necessary to carry it out, a process that is supposed to be wrapped up by Oct. 1 -- the start of the fiscal year. It is a deadline that Congress has almost never met, going back to the 1980s.

Congress still has not passed a budget for the current year, thanks largely to obstacles of its own making, such as the automatic "sequestration." And these delays and squabbles have consequences.

For example, senior leaders of the military wrote that, absent a defense budget, "We are on the brink of creating a hollow force," with aircraft grounded, warships kept in port, combat vehicles parked and training reduced by almost half.

Leon Panetta, who is stepping down as defense secretary, said that without a 2013 budget, "We have no idea what the hell's going to happen. All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness."

Perhaps Congress should adopt something like the "broken window" theory that's been successful in law enforcement. In brief, the theory goes that cracking down on minor nuisance crimes leads to a reduction in major crimes.

However, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has published the House calendar for this year that calls for 33 work weeks, most of them four-day weeks (there are no five-day weeks on the calendar) for a total of 122 days. The Senate tends to closely follow suit.

This month the House will work one two-day week and two three-day weeks. The House plans two days of work in August before knocking off for the five weeks from Aug. 3 to Sept. 9. It will be in session only eight days in November and eight days in December.

The lawmakers could start modestly -- say, by meeting their own deadlines and working a full year. Good things just might follow.