Policy

Deadline for Presidential Budget Request Often Missed

Obama, Bush and Clinton submitted budgets late in their inaugural years

President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia on Jan. 26. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Pool)

Recent history suggests President Donald Trump may miss a deadline set in law for submitting a budget request to Congress. This could in turn hold up work on spending bills and again send Congress into a spiral of delay when it comes to funding the government. 

Trump wouldn’t be alone. Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all submitted budgets late during their first years as president. The deadline is the first Monday in February pursuant to a 1990 budget law, though there’s no penalty for missing it.

But they’re the only three presidents in history to not meet a statutory deadline to submit a budget resolution in their first inaugural year, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Clinton’s first budget was 66 days late. Bush’s first budget was 63 days late and Obama hit a historic record with a 94-day late submission of his inaugural budget.

However, earlier presidents often had help from their predecessors, even if they were from a different party.

For Obama, Clinton and Bush, the appropriations process that followed budget action was also delayed, though that’s been a typical practice for decades now as lawmakers rarely cobble together spending decisions before the start of a fiscal year on Oct. 1.

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Under Clinton, fiscal 1994 appropriations action stretched into November, with final regular appropriations work on Defense spending. Congress and Bush didn’t finish fiscal 2002 appropriations until January 2002 with the enactment of a Defense bill. And Obama’s first full spending season, fiscal 2010, didn’t wrap up work until mid-December 2009 with a minibus of six appropriations bills.

All three presidents issued some kind of guidance for lawmakers in February in the form of a budget overview. Obama presented a budget outline to Congress on Feb. 26, 2009, Bush sent an overview on Feb. 28, 2001, and Clinton gave an overview on Feb. 17, 1993. Trump may submit an outline of his budget in late February, CQ Roll Call has reported.

The 45th president’s target date for submission is Feb. 6 but it looks dicey that it will be met.

Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, the agency in charge of preparing the president’s budget request, has still not been confirmed. Rep. Mick Mulvaney faces opposition from Democrats and concern from some defense hawks who fear the South Carolina Republican won’t supply the increases in defense spending Trump promised on the campaign trail. However, it appears likely he will be confirmed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t offer an encouraging outlook for those hoping for vigorous spending action for fiscal 2017 or fiscal 2018. Citing Democrats’ ability to block spending legislation in the Senate, the Kentucky Republican said last Thursday he could only hope for “some semblance of a regular order” when asked about the spending action ahead.

History lessons

A CQ Roll Call analysis of historic budget submissions and spending timelines in inaugural years shows that delayed action on spending and the budget is something of a new trend. And that might be partially because outgoing presidents in the past prepared budget submissions for the newcomer prior to Inauguration Day. Presidents willing to give the next leader a jump-start on fiscal business include:

  • Ronald Reagan, who submitted a budget in 1989 just before George H.W. Bush, a fellow Republican, took office.
  • Republican Gerald R. Ford, who submitted his fiscal 1978 budget just days before Democrat Jimmy Carter’s swearing-in.
  • Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who submitted his budget in January 1969 just before the swearing-in of Richard Nixon, a Republican.
  • Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who submitted his fiscal 1962 blueprint just before Democrat John F. Kennedy took office.
  • Democrat Harry S. Truman, who put out his fiscal 1954 budget before Eisenhower took office in 1953.

The CRS report compiles presidential budget submissions since the creation of a statutory deadline for such a document, which took effect in fiscal 1923. The research shows that presidents turning in work late didn’t start until the 20th century.

Their deadlines back then, though, were set at various points in January, earlier than the current first Monday in February deadline.

A few presidents got extensions written into law. After his second swearing-in, Johnson got about a week extra to turn in his work through an extension approved in 1965.

Nixon also got an extension after being sworn in to his second term as president in 1973. And Reagan got a submission deadline moved from January to February through an extension in 1985 when he was preparing to submit a budget after winning a second presidential term.

Clinton, with no extension, was the first to blow past a statutory deadline for his first budget submission the year he became president.

Spending start

Why does it matter? Typically, agreement on the budget marks the start of the regular appropriations process because it sets spending levels in law for the Appropriations Committee to divide across the 12 spending bills.

Instead, in 2017, unfinished spending work and the lack of a budget agreement give lawmakers the space to re-evaluate their budget priorities with a Republican president now in office.

But spending for the federal government still hangs in the balance. Current fiscal 2017 funding runs out April 28, with only one regular fiscal 2017 appropriations bill enacted before the fiscal 2017 year began Oct. 1, 2016.

There’s also the fiscal 2018 spending season on the horizon, which is now almost certainly going to stretch well beyond the typical calendar. And lawmakers return to sequester spending levels established in the 2011 deficit reduction law now that a two-year budget deal expires with fiscal 2017.

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