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In a speech that looked beyond the primary to the general election, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, hit President Barack Obama over his handling of the recession.
"President Obama's answer to our economic crisis was more spending, more debt and larger government. And by the end of his term in office he will have added nearly as much public debt as all the prior presidents combined," Romney said in an April 4, 2012, speech to newspaper editors. "No president has ever run a trillion-dollar deficit. The new normal the president would have us embrace is trillion-dollar deficits and 8 percent unemployment. Through all of this, President Obama has failed to even pass a budget."
There are a lot of accusations packed in there, but that last one -- that Obama failed to pass a budget -- piqued our interest most.
How the budget happens
The federal budget doesn’t get enacted the way other laws do. The process starts with the president submitting his budget request to Congress early in the year. That voluminous document is partly a presidential wish list, but it also gives Congress a framework.
"The ‘PresBud,’ as it is called, forms the basis of the fiscal year budget that starts the following October," according to this post from the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
In Congress, the House and Senate have budget committees tasked with creating concurrent budget resolutions, using the president’s budget as a guide. As Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote, "The legislation they draft is for Congressional use only: it doesn't go to the President, it isn't law, it just helps Congress keep its budgetary ducks in a row."
So there is the first problem with Romney’s statement. The president doesn’t "pass" a budget. That’s Congress’ job.
In Obama’s case, he has submitted his budget request each year he has been in office.
Voting on his requests
Romney said in his speech that "In February, (Obama) put forward a proposal that included the largest tax increase in history and still left our national debt spiraling out of control, and the House rejected it unanimously."
He’s right about the rejection. After Obama submitted his fiscal year 2013 budget proposal on Feb. 13, 2012, House Republicans put it up for a floor vote.
The result: 414-0 against.
The same thing happened a year earlier in the Senate. That vote: 97-0 against. Democrats didn’t support the plan because it has been supplanted by another deficit-reduction plan Obama had later outlined. Republican leaders demanded a vote on Obama’s budget to show that Democrats don’t support any detailed budget blueprint, according to The Hill.
Such votes are taken "just as a means of embarrassing the president and his party," said Patrick Louis Knudsen, a senior fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Usually it’s brought up by the opposition party because they generally anticipate that a president’s budget won’t get very much support especially if it has controversial elements to it," he said.
Other experts agree. Said Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense: "That was pure political theater and was done to score rhetorical points."
And Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said, "it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s only a symbolic gesture."
These votes are also what Romney’s campaign cited when we asked for documentation of his statement.
"Everyone understands that the president has a unique and important role in facilitating that process," said spokesman Ryan Williams in an email. "President Obama has been an unprecedented failure in that respect. His FY 2012 budget went down 97-0 in the Senate and his FY 2013 budget went down 414-0 in the House."
Speaking of precedent
We wondered what other budgetary scenarios have played out recently.
Knudsen pointed to 2009, when Democrats still held a majority in the House. They introduced a resolution that included the mechanism for the health care legislation championed by Obama in his budget. The resolution had many elements of the president’s budget, Knudsen said, though it wasn’t strictly speaking that document.
Ornstein referred us to the gridlock of 2011 that resulted from the debate over raising the debt ceiling. The budget control act, which was passed to avoid a default on our debt and signed by Obama wasn’t a traditional budget resolution, Ornstein said. But he noted: "That was actually a budget adopted by a president."
Ornstein also noted that during George W. Bush’s presidency, there were years that Democrats in Congress failed to pass joint resolutions.
"To suggest that was Bush not passing a budget would be a misstatement," Ornstein said. He called Romney’s rap on Obama "at best a gross exaggeration."
But in Knudsen’s view, Romney’s statement was "technically accurate."
"The president’s budgets have been brought to the floor twice and they have failed," Knudsen said. "It’s not atypical that that should happen, but nevertheless the governor is correct."
PolitiFact has examined similar accusations about a lack of budgeting when they’ve been leveled at Congress. In January 2012, Republican House member Paul Ryan charged that Senate Democrats "have gone without any budget at all" for more than 1,000 days. PolitiFact Wisconsin rated that Mostly True, finding he was slightly off about the number of days but correct that the Democrat-controlled Senate had gone a long time with passing a budget resolution.
Former Louisiana Congressman and Gov. Buddy Roemer earned a Half True from us when he said in July 2011 that "Obama has never submitted a budget, and Congress has worked for two years without passing one." He was right about Congress but wrong about Obama.
In his speech, Romney faulted Obama for failing to pass a budget. He was correct that the two times Congress voted on the president’s budget requests, both times they were voted down. But the job of passing a budget resolution is not the president’s. That responsibility falls to Congress, and even then the president doesn’t sign it. As Ellis, our expert, put it: "The president has no role in passing a budget. The president can cajole Congress about passing a budget and advocate for positions and funding levels, but in the end, Congress approves the budget resolution for their own purposes." That’s the difference between this and other claims we’ve rated which blamed Congress for inaction on the budget.
Romney’s statement contains a grain of truth, in that two of Obama’s budget requests failed to pass. But citing those votes leaves a wrong impression -- namely that the votes were anything more than political theater. Romney omitted the more critical information that passing a federal budget is the job of Congress. Given all that, we rate his statement Mostly False.
Romney remarks to Newspaper Association of America, April 4, 2012, transcript accessed via CQ.com
Taxpayers for Common Sense, "Tempest in a Teapot," March 23, 2012
Interview with Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense, April 4 & 5, 2012
Interview with Patrick Louis Knudsen, Heritage Foundation, April 5, 2012
Interview with Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, April 5, 2012
Email interview with Ryan Williams, Romney campaign, April 5, 2012
The Hill, "President's budget sinks, 97-0," May 25, 2011
PolitiFact, "Roemer faults Obama and Congress on budgets," Aug. 5, 2011
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate has gone nearly three years without a budget, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan says," Feb. 2, 2012
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