James C. Capretta at AEI:

While the BAA [Budget and Accounting Act of 1921] empowered the executive branch with a centralized budget process, it did not resolve an ever-present tension in American government, which is that there is no regularized process for establishing a budget plan to which both the legislative and executive branches must adhere. Congress ceded none of its constitutional authority in the BAA; it simply allowed the president to submit an annual budget request, which the House and Senate can (and frequently do) ignore. At the same time, the president is under no obligation to accept the terms of congressional budget decisions (as expressed in budget resolutions that are not sent to the president for approval). He is free to approve or veto the appropriation measures and tax bills that are a consequence of congressional budget planning.


The closest American government ever gets to an agreed legislative-executive budget is through ad hoc negotiations, such as was the case with the 1990 budget agreement between a Democratic Congress and President George H.W. Bush. The law enshrining that bipartisan accord established enforceable targets lasting for five years.


The BAA was a necessary break from an era of congressional budgetary supremacy. The president is chief executive of the federal government, and the BAA enhanced his ability to direct and control the government over which he is held accountable by voters. However, presidential authority is not sufficient to solve the nation’s fiscal problems. For that, Congress’s cooperation is required too, just as Congress needs the cooperation of the president to secure passage of spending and tax changes.


The nation’s budgetary practices have evolved with the country’s needs. One hundred years after the BAA’s enactment, additional changes are necessary. The federal government’s fiscal policy is dangerously off course and needs to be corrected. Congress cannot solve this immense problem on its own; neither can the president. They will need to cooperate to develop an enduring solution. The nation’s budget procedures need to be updated to allow, and incentivize, Congress and the president to do so as part of the regular order of conducting the nation’s business.