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A first step to budget reform

The White House has informed Congress that its fiscal 2014 budget, due to be submitted next month, will be late. No surprise there. The law requires the president to send his projected annual budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. That would be Feb. 4.

With some justice, the White House Office of Management and Budget blamed the delay on the wrangling over the fiscal cliff. The office says it is working “diligently” to ready the 2014 budget.

But, with a helping hand from an uncooperative Congress, none of the annual budgets for which the Obama administration has been fully responsible has arrived on time. His first budget didn’t arrive until early May and the next two were late, but at least they arrived in the right month.

Congress then rewrites that budget and appropriates the funds necessary to carry it out, a process that is supposed to be wrapped up by Oct. 1. It is a deadline that Congress has almost never met, going back to the 1980s.

Congress still has not passed a budget for the current year, thanks largely to obstacles of its own making. And these delays and squabbles have consequences.

For example, senior leaders of the military wrote that, absent a defense budget, “We are on the brink of creating a hollow force,” with aircraft grounded, warships kept in port and training reduced by almost half.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that without a 2013 budget, “We have no idea what the hell’s going to happen. All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness.”

Perhaps Congress should adopt something like the “broken window” theory in law enforcement. In brief, the theory goes that cracking down on minor nuisance crimes leads to a reduction in major crimes.

Lawmakers could start modestly – say, by meeting their own deadlines and working a full year. Good things might follow.