A Budget Delayed, to Little G.O.P. Sympathy

John Boehner

President Obama? Yes, and Republicans are not happy about it. But before him there was President Ronald Reagan, who exactly a quarter-century ago sent his budget to Congress 45 days late, citing the disruptions and data changes forced by the late-1987 deficit reduction deal that he had negotiated with Democrats, who controlled Congress.

As of Friday, Mr. Obama is 32 days late in delivering his budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Even now, White House officials will not say when it will surface, but some privately suggest early April.

That time frame would cause Mr. Obama to break Mr. Reagan’s record for tardiness by a president who is not new to the office. The blueprint’s arrival would follow House and Senate action over the next two weeks on their respective budgets, reversing the usual order; the president has gone first since 1921. And the delay would lend new meaning to the abbreviation for the White House Office of Management and Budget, O.M.B. — Obama’s Missing Budget.

Unlike Congressional Democrats in 1988, who expressed understanding for the lateness of Mr. Reagan’s budget, Republican leaders now are not as sympathetic toward Mr. Obama, in another sign of the current heightened partisanship.

On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, challenged the White House, saying, “Where is their plan to balance the budget?” And earlier this week, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, took note of the rumors of an April budget submission and scolded Mr. Obama from the Senate floor, saying, “That goes far beyond the pale of just missing deadlines.”

“It’s time for the president to get his budget plan over to us — not next week or next month, but now,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. Obama’s budget office might have had his budget ready by late March, some Democrats say, if the only delaying factor was the four months of wrangling since the November election over fiscal crises of Congress’s and the White House’s own making. But now Senate Democrats want Mr. Obama to hold off on releasing his budget until they finish work on their own this month, lest Republicans seize on inconsistencies between the two to score political points.

But the serial fiscal crises are the main culprit. First, the two parties contended over the so-called fiscal cliff late last year, which threatened broad tax increases; they ultimately agreed to limit those to the richest taxpayers. Then Mr. Obama and Republicans tussled to an impasse over spending and taxes. Absent their agreement on a deficit-reduction alternative, the standoff forced indiscriminate across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, for military and domestic programs, starting last weekend.

And now Congress and the White House are preoccupied with the March 27 expiration of the law setting current spending levels for federal programs and agencies, seeking a mutually agreeable extension that will prevent a government shutdown.

For the administration’s number crunchers, all this has meant that the usual work of preparing the president’s budget has had to take a back seat as the bureaucrats help the negotiators and advise federal agencies left in the lurch. Each outcome of the high-level talks changes the spending and revenue data underlying the next budget. On New Year’s Day, as on most days, work went on at the budget office.

Just after the year began, Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, wrote to the acting director of Mr. Obama’s budget office, Jeffrey D. Zients, asking when the president’s proposal would reach Congress. Mr. Zients did not give a date in his response two days later, only confirming that the budget would be delayed because of “the protracted ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations,” which consumed the final two months of 2012.

This week, after another two months of fighting over the budget cuts from sequestration, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, still did not have a date for reporters. “There is no question that the series of crises, largely manufactured, that we and Congress have been having to deal with over the past several months have had an impact on that process.”

The postponement of Mr. Obama’s budget “is only to be expected, given what we’ve been through,” said Robert D. Reischauer, a former Congressional Budget Office director. But, he added, “lots of trees are going to be killed for no significant purpose if it’s not meaningful.” 

He and other fiscal analysts say it should be no wonder that the House and Senate budget committees will be able to produce their own budget proposals before the administration does. Congressional budget resolutions are significantly less detailed, filling pages while administration budgets fill volumes. A president’s budget, with tens of thousands of line items for expenditures and revenues projected years ahead, must stand as something of a historical record of the fiscal moment, regardless of what Congress does with many of the particulars.

“The president’s budget might be dead on arrival in Congress for political reasons, but it shouldn’t be irrelevant for numbers reasons,” Mr. Reischauer said. “And given the fiscal cliff uncertainty, there was no knowing what the numbers would be, what the base was off of which the policies would be proposed. And then, of course, we had the question of what was going to happen with the sequester.”

Typically, only new presidents are notably late in submitting budgets because they take office shortly before the due date, currently the first Monday in February. President Bill Clinton was 66 days late in 1993, and President George W. Bush was 63 days late in 2001.

But Mr. Obama holds the record. As he took office at the height of a recession and a financial crisis, his bigger priorities in early 2009 were passing an economic stimulus and rescuing the auto and financial industries. His first budget was 98 days late.

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