StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

It's Time To Eliminate The President's Budget

19 Feb 2014
Posted by Stan Collender

We used to say that a president's budget wasn't worth the paper on which it was printed. These days we say the same thing a bit differently: the president's budget isn't worth the memory needed to store it on your computer.

Either way you have to ask why the White House should even bother?

Take what's happening with the 2015 budget, for example.

As reported by The New York Times and others, last week's big budget news was that the Obama administration's fiscal 2015 budget will not include the proposal made last year to change the way the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment is calculated.

That was covered as a typical politically red-hot inside-the-beltway story: the White House decided not to hand congressional Republicans an election year issue and congressional Democrats were breathing a huge sigh of relief because of it.

The reports said that the Social Security plan was dropped because the administration realized it made no sense to propose something that (1) was not going to be well received by Democrats, (2) would not generate bipartisan cooperation from Republicans, (3) would likely cost Democrats votes (and maybe seats) in November and (4) had no chance whatsoever of being enacted. There was no grand budget bargain in the offing so why bother.

But the decision to drop the Social Security plan actually has additional implications that were not covered. It demonstrates that the president's budget -- I'm talking about any president and not just the current one -- has become a liability and no longer has much positive value as far as the fiscal policy debate is concerned.

This has been in the works for a while. Virtually every president's budget over the past four decades has been declared dead on arrival -- DOA -- and the proposals it included were ignored just days (at most) after it was released. In some years the president's budget was declared to be DBP, that is, dead before printing. And former Congressional Budget Office Director Rudy Penner, once predicted that in some years the president's budget would be considered DBT, that is, dead before typesetting.

This means that what used to give the White House an advantage over Congress has become a significant political liability. The president's proposals have stopped being the place where discussions begin and instead just give Congress something to criticize and reject out-of-hand.

I first realized this was happening in 1995 when incoming House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) was saying to anyone who would interview him that President Bill Clinton shouldn't bother submitting a budget because the new GOP majority would ignore it. Nevertheless, even though they had no intention on acting on it, congressional Republicans still waited for the Clinton plan to be released before moving ahead with their own budget resolution so they could complain about what the president proposed.

The situation has gotten worse with each subsequent presidential budget. No matter who has been president and which political party controlled Congress, the budget has become so unimportant that its release essentially is now a nonevent. What used to generate a multi-page spread written by a team of reporters in major newspapers is now often covered in a single story written by one person. The budget often doesn't lead the news during the day or that night.

The value of the president's budget has diminished further as Congress has seen less and less need each year to adopt a congressional budget resolution.

Regardless of whether it has been Senate Democrats who either were unwilling or unable to pass a budget or House Republicans refusal to go to conference with the Senate, Congress' failure to do what it is legally required to do each year by the Congressional Budget Act has further transformed the president's budget from what should be a serious part of the policy process into nothing more than an act of political self-flagellation.

Congress has too much fun with the president's proposals to change the law that requires the White House to prepare and submit an annual budget, and it's hard to imagine any president unilaterally deciding not to comply with the Congressional Budget Act's requirements. In the current hyperpartisan political environment it's not hard to imagine the House considering impeaching a president if he or she decided not to comply with the statutory requirement that a budget be sent to Capital Hill each year.

My suggestion? Change the Congressional Budget Act so that the president is not required to prepare and submit a budget the year after Congress fails to adopt a budget resolution. If Congress wants a presidential budget to play with, it has to produce a plan of its own.

In the meantime we should all save a few trees or bytes of memory when the president's budget is released. It's just not going to mean very much and should not be taken that seriously.

...All of that is why I

...All of that is why I prefer to use the term "The President's budget proposal," which I think captures the irrelevance of it. Essentially it is a political, rather than a policy document.

Necessary as Appropriations Baseline

I agree about the political nature of all Washington budget-writing, but the details and agency-by-agency spending justifications are essential for writing appropriations bills. Without an Administration proposal as a foundation, wet would rely on Congress setting the baseline for activity and program spending, which should scare the willies out of any budgeteer.

We'd be writing it anyway.

Congress doesn't know squat about what it takes to run agencies. Sure, do away with the President's Budget as a formal submission, however, the agencies are the repositories of how much it costs to do things. You won't do away with the process.

We don't need no stinkin' budget

We need more budgeting, not less.
Budgets force people to think about the big picture.
No budget is really DOA. Congress and the President have historically held different budget priorities.
Too many in Congress don't review the budgets. Many follow the advice of party leaders and lobbyists.

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