The U.S. Congress has what is called "regular order," meaning that the lawmaking process follows well-defined written procedures.
It requires the president to submit the following year's budget by the first Monday in February, and then the House and Senate budget committees submit budgets of their own. A House-Senate conference committee then agrees on a compromise and submits it to both houses of Congress in the form of a resolution, one that is technically nonbinding but that greatly influences how federal spending is arrived at.
Last week, the House passed its budget resolution, the work of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate. Basically, the budget is a reworking of earlier Ryan budgets and, if anything, it's even more politically unpalatable. It promises to balance the budget in 10 years instead of 20, as in the previous document, through massive cuts in federal spending. And it would replace Medicare with a voucher system, a political nonstarter.
Ryan boasted that this was the third consecutive year the House had passed a budget on time, a dig at the Democratic-controlled Senate that hadn't passed a budget at all in four years.
Just before dawn on Saturday, the Senate in fact narrowly passed a budget resolution, 50-49, calling for $3.7 trillion in spending next year and $975 billion in tax increases over the decade. The budget calls for modest cuts in defense, farm subsidies and some health programs, but those savings would go to finance repeal of the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years, the "sequestration" that Congress got itself locked into.
The budget -- the handiwork of Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. -- would shield most of the programs that her House counterpart would like to cut. It would not balance the budget; instead, it would reduce the annual deficit -- projected at $900 billion for 2013 -- to $566 billion in 10 years.
Murray is too gentle, whereas Ryan is too harsh. The two budgets are so far apart that Senate Leader Harry Reid said he sees little reason to send them to a conference committee.
The next move is Obama's budget, in a process that has become neither regular nor orderly.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.