Opinion

1,000 days of dysfunction

When President Barack Obama strides into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday to deliver his fourth State of the Union address, it will mark exactly 1,000 days since the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate has passed a budget.

The last time the Senate passed a budget was April 29, 2009 — three months after Obama was sworn into office. Since then the federal government has spent $9.4 trillion — including $4.1 trillion in money it didn’t have (and thus had to borrow from future generations of taxpayers). As a result, the U.S. debt has soared from $11.1 to $15.2 trillion over the past 1,000 days — and is projected to climb to $16.4 trillion by the end of 2012.

Does this sound like responsible stewardship of taxpayer resources to you?

In fairness to the dysfunctional Senate, there is plenty of budgetary blame to go around. In 2010, for example, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass a budget for the first time in 36 years — neglecting to perform what the chamber’s own majority leader once referred to as “the most basic function of governing.”

Why didn’t the House pass a spending plan that year? The same reason the Senate refuses to do so today — sheer spinelessness.

“No one wants to spell out what they would do given that the choices are humongous deficits or tough policy choices, all in an incredibly tense election year,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said two years ago. “The budget never really had a chance.”

Another reason? In 2010 House leaders were too busy concocting procedural loopholes to force Obamacare down our throats, creating yet another costly long-term obligation at a time when taxpayers can’t afford to pay for government’s existing entitlement behemoths. And while Republicans in Congress unanimously opposed Obamacare, it’s worth noting that many of the GOP’s loudest critics previously supported President George W. Bush’s ill-conceived prescription drug benefit, part of a dramatic ramp-up in federal spending that took place under the guise of “compassionate conservatism.”

And while the Republican-controlled U.S. House did pass a budget in 2011, its leaders in both chambers have been far too eager to accommodate Democrats in reaching short-term spending “compromises.”

Regardless of which chamber or party is responsible for the dysfunction, though, failing to pass an annual appropriations bill is inexcusable fiscal policy.

When government is funded in monthly or bi-monthly fits and starts (called “continuing resolutions”), the very worst in Washington spending habits are perpetuated. Meanwhile desperately needed spending reforms are ignored. The result is a budgetary climate in which short-term deals aimed at averting immediate political consequences take precedence over a long-overdue reprioritization of core government functions.

Failing to pass an annual budget puts politicians’ desire to approve spending on steroids — causing them to “kick the can down the road” even faster than usual, resulting in bad decisions, bigger deficits and more debt.