Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do

We need to remember who actually sets the budget and, further, who is ultimtately responsible for the behavior of politicians.

Every year we seem to go through the same ritual:  talking about the president’s budget plan like it actually was the foundational document for understanding the coming debate on the federal budget when, in fact, as an actual plan it is usually DOA upon arrival in Congress.  The actual process of writing the budget for FY2012 will undertaken in the committees of Congress and may, or may not, reflect the priorities provided by the White House.

Not only is the process in the hands of Congress and not the President, it ends up being a complex process of authorization and appropriations.  Further, any number of issues may not be part of the budget (various emergency spending, such as real emergencies like Hurricane Katrina or items we simply leave off budget for political reasons, such as a great deal of spending linked to Afghanistan and Iraq).  There is also the real possibility that in any given year a budget will not be passed, but rather the continuation of the previous year’s budget will remain in place (as is the case this year, as there never was a FY2011 budget passed—indeed, the current continuing resolution runs out on March 4, which requires a new resolution to keep the government open).  While such outcome is unlikely this year, it underscores that last year’s discussion of Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal ended up being a moot exercise.

Speaking of that exercise, we go through it every year and it always seems to me that the discussions always miss the fundamental fact that the president’s annual budget plan is naught but a suggestion and, moreover (and to repeat myself) one that is likely to be set aside by Congress (followed some, maybe, but never in toto).  Now, it is true that these plans can help to set the agenda and they generate useful public discussion (more because, in my opinion, because it makes us talk about budget basics than the specific proposals of a given administration).  However, it might be a bit more helpful that when the Very Serious People discuss these proposals that they make a bit clearer the fact that whatever we are going to get later this year is going to be a creation of the legislature.

An interesting fact here is that the Constitution does not foresee the executive as having a role in the budget process until after the legislature has done its work (i.e., via either signing or vetoing the legislation).  The origin of the current process is the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which requires the president to submit an annual budget plan.  I think it is further interesting to note that that Act combined with the increasing significance of the State of the Union address (which ends up being, in part, a recitation of budget priorities) in the media age has helped to shift public attention to the president on these area of public policy which despite all the attention paid is still a constitutional function of the Congress.

At a minimum, it would be nice if people would talk about this for what it is:  the start of the conversation, not the end of it.

All of the reasons noted above always makes me find strident criticisms (for example here and others here—but really, all over the web, in print and over the air yesterday) of a given year’s budget plan to be, at a minimum, a bit misplaced as it assumes that the president’s budget proposal has a lot more influence on outcomes than it likely will.  The real driver, by the way, of the budget is that most of it is already set (e.g., entitlements and interest on the debt).

I also think that much of the criticism of Obama specifically is unfair, at least from a practical point of view.  The problem is not the lack of leadership from the White House as much as it is the prevailing politics of the moment.  While I do not think one can be considered serious about the deficit and debt unless one is willing to address the issues of entitlements, defense spending and the issue of raising additional revenues (i.e., raising taxes), I am also aware that the public doesn’t want to hear that (as James Joyner noted the other day).

If one considers that perhaps the most popular piece of legislation in the last two years was the bipartisan compromise in the lame duck session that extended the Bush tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits that may be all one needs to know about the politics of the deficit.  The vast majority of the American public wants a diet of giant cake that they can eat too and that, further, will have no detrimental effects on their long-term health (but, they want to complains about the fact they are getting fat and yet have no energy).

To talk pure politics for a moment:  if the Obama administration had come out with a serious budget proposal that did things like cut entitlements and defense and that, further, raised taxes (the kinds of things that have to be done to deal with the current fiscal trends), does anyone think that it would have been greeted positively?  Again:  this is not to defend the Obama administration, but rather to try to get us to think about where the real problems we face are.

As much as I would like to blame politicians, the bottom line remains this:  the reason that the Obama administration (and ultimately, I predict, the Congress) is unwilling to make serious attempts at dealing with the fiscal challenges facing the United States is because we, the people, would punish them all at the ballot box if they did.  We don’t want our entitlements cut, we don’t want to cut defense spending, and we don’t want to raise taxes (some “we’s” want some of these things and some “we’s” want others, but there is no critical convergence of interest that will allow any of these to happen at the moment—and really, they all need to undertaken to one degree or another).

Voters needs to stop falling for assertions like cutting “waste” or foreign aid will solve these problems. See here, for example.   Until the public (and, really, most pundits/analysts/politicians) really takes all of this seriously, all this is just so much shouting in the wind.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    All true of course Steven, but in politics you can’t totally ignore symbolism. The Presidential budget is as you say purely a suggestion but it does lay out a sort of order of priorities for him and his party. Given that there is so much inertia built into the budgeting process this is not without importance in shaping public perceptions and the ultimate outcome. For example I have a hunch that if we get to a final budget it’s probably going to look a whole lot more like Obama’s “suggestion” than anything that comes from the pen of Paul Ryan. As you say, at bottom the vast bulk of the budget is made up of programs that are popular (and necessary) and/or are favored by certain special interests. With total federal and state outlays exceeding 5 Trillion all talk of shrinking govt etc etc is strictly for the birds and yet we have a large contingent on the right who think it’s real.

  2. ponce says:

    If I were the House Republicans I’d want to avoid talking about he budget, too.

    Because the moment Boner produces the Republican’s budget, the Tea Party abandons the Republicans and forms a third party.

  3. Drew says:

    “Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do”

    I think that’s a wise observation; often ignored. I hear the left railing about Reagan, without understanding that he had to deal with Tip O’Neil. And Tip bf’d him.

    They often forget that Bush lost Congress in 2006.

    And BJ’s comments aside, I think it would be fair to now hold the Republican House accountable.

    I’m willing to be honest about how the budget trajectory is fundamentally set in this country. The left clearly is not. So let the debate begin.

  4. @Drew:

    I really don’t think that the malady here is a left/right on. It is rather bipartisan, in fact.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The true irony here is that the unfortunately ignorant and irrational micro-demographic of the right, which let Harry Reid and the Democrats hold onto the Senate last November, won’t be able even to figure out the irony.

  6. Wayne says:

    Re “Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do”
    Does it matter who goes first? The Presidents proposes a budget. Congress hold hearings with the executive branch representatives to decide what they need. Congress writes the budget. If the President doesn’t like it enough, he vetoes it and then it goes back to congress Etc. Almost always Congress compromises with the President in passing the budget.

    It is a process. To pretend Congress sets the budget and the President has nothing to do with setting it is absurd.

    I do agree the perception of how much the President is responsible for the end product, is inflated. Much of that has to do with how much clout he has at any given time.

    Regardless the President is supposed to be the leader of the country and he should lead. He should submit a serious budget proposal and not some political hack piece. If the budget needs to be cut and it does, he should say where. He shouldn’t be acting like a politician all the time but a leader of a country.

  7. To pretend Congress sets the budget and the President has nothing to do with setting it is absurd.

    Did I say that?


  8. PJ says:

    “To pretend Congress sets the budget and the President has nothing to do with setting it is absurd.”

    The Congress can override a Presidential veto. A President cannot propose a budget and then somehow force the Congress to vote for it.

    Can someone who thinks that care to explain how the President would accomplish that?

  9. Wayne says:

    What is the Purpose of saying “Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do?

    That to me indicates that the President isn’t involved in setting the budgets or he isn’t the sole authority on it. The first part is clearly wrong. If you meant the second then your statement that “Congresses Do” is wrong since they are not the sole authority on it either. Please don’t go done the “will if they have a super majority” route as I can counter that argument as well.

    A better statement would have been “the President and Congress sets the budgets” or something along line of “the President doesn’t get to dictate the budget”. Your statement seems to want to absolved the President of his responsibilities in his part of setting the budget.

  10. @Wayne:

    Because that would be wrong. The president and the congress do not have co-equal powers in setting the budget.

  11. Wayne says:

    That would take a super majority which is hard to do especially if the President party does not have the super majority. That is why congress often compromise and give into the President on his priorities. If the President veto meant nothing and does not influence the budget then Newt would have had his way and not compromise back in the Clinton days. That clearly did not happen.

    Clinton as about every President has certainly had a hand in shaping budgets.

  12. BTW, Wayne, from the post:

    ). Now, it is true that these plans can help to set the agenda

  13. Steven Plunk says:

    As Chuck Schumer would say the three branches of government, the House, the Senate, and the President, must agree on any budget. The President sends a budget request based upon the needs submitted by the various departments and agencies. Compromise is achieved with the House then compromise is made with the Senate. When it’s all done the President signs away. All three set the budget and then blame the others for it.

    More importantly our previous obligations set more of the budget than those three above.

  14. Wayne says:

    @Steven it would not be wrong and I did not say co-equal. You do not have to have co-equaled to have a significant part. If anything in the practical since the President has more since he also the leader of his Party. Congress is not one person or one party. A President has the executive power including the veto and often the influence to have his Party back him in congress.

  15. @Wayne:

    I never said that the president has no role. However, the fact of the matter is that the role is not as large as most people make it out to be. This is the point.

  16. At a minimum, the constant talk about “Obama’s Budget” radically inflates his role in the process.

  17. Wayne says:

    S.T. you say the President one action(I assume you would acknowledge even more actions) helps sets the agenda but then that he doesn’t help set the budget. Am I getting that clear?

  18. Wayne says:

    Re “. However, the fact of the matter is that the role is not as large as most people make it out to be.”

    Which is what I said above with “I do agree the perception of how much the President is responsible for the end product, is inflated.”.

    That is very different from saying “Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do”. The President and congress set the budget.

  19. @Wayne:

    Let me try it this way: the Congress (via its committees) writes and votes on the budget as such, the actual budget is set by the Congress subject to the signature or veto by the president.

    The president can influence (help set the agenda) as to what congress produces, but again: congress produces the actual budget.

    Also: vetoing the budget is not as easy as it sounds.

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    Also: vetoing the budget is not as easy as it sounds.

    It’s extremely difficult which is why Presidents have long wanted the line item veto, got it for a short while until it was deemed unsconstitutional.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    Drew says:
    Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 11:57
    “Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do”

    “I hear the left railing about Reagan, without understanding that he had to deal with Tip O’Neil. And Tip bf’d him.”

    Oh…so Tip was behind all those huge tax cuts and the huge build up in military expenditures so he really won the cold war not Reagan…Gee…I never knew that.

  22. Drew says:

    Steven –

    “I really don’t think that the malady here is a left/right on. It is rather bipartisan, in fact.”

    Perhaps. And maybe I’m the rare bird who is willing to hold those I consider to be generally more in line with my views (the current Republicans), and have roundly criticized the, oh, 1998 – 2006 Republicans for their spending habits.

    But I see no such even handedness from the left, at a minimum not around here. Just “hooray for our side.”

    See, for example, BJ at 14.21

  23. Drew says:

    hold accountable

  24. Matt B says:

    In regards to the budget and the “untouchable” aspects of it: would you say, as a general rule of politics, that the only people in the position to reform/truly cut Military and long term Social Entitlements are presidents of the *right* party (Republican for Military and Democrat for Social) in their second term (or when reelection is 100% certain)?

    It seems to me that if Obama could get a second term, the fact is any attempt to substantively shrink the size of the Military budget is DOA, largely because the’s a Democrat. I could see him being more successful with domestic/social entitlements. Likewise, the failure of Bush to spend his political capital to reform Social Security seems to, at least in part, been about him being a Republican.

  25. mantis says:

    Likewise, the failure of Bush to spend his political capital to reform Social Security seems to, at least in part, been about him being a Republican.

    No, it’s because he wanted to destroy Social Security, not makes sure it works in the future.

  26. Matt B says:


    The same thing has been said about Clinton’s 1996 reform of welfare. Many on the left now see it as a gutting of the existing system. That said he was able to get it passed (note that while it was an election year he was facing the largely symbolic challenge of B. Dole).

    I’m not a supporter of the Bush SS Plan (and I think it’s plain to see that he never had the Political Capital he claimed). That said, I wonder if a Democrat had introduced a similiar plan, if it would have made it through.

    My suspicion is that on a Republican President (as I don’t think Congress could make it happen) is capable of really cutting the defense budget in a substantive way — likewise only a Democrat President could tackle Health Care/SS. And it just doesn’t seem like this could in anyway be accomplished in a first term if the person wanted to be reelected. I also suspect that said person’s VP can’t have any interest in the Presidency either.

    I see little hope of Congress, under any configuration, being capable of taking that action without being able to shift the blame to a President. The issue for congress is that the individual members are too tied to local communities to make those hard choices (or give up money coming into their districts).

    I also suspect that even if the presidential configuration is the case, neither action can be taken at this moment (with troops actively deployed in combat zones and in the midst of high unemployment rates).

    Sadly, when deep cuts most need to be made, I suspect we are structurally in a position where there is no hope of that happening.

  27. mantis says:

    That said, I wonder if a Democrat had introduced a similiar plan, if it would have made it through.


  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    Drew says:
    Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 14:31

    “See, for example, BJ at 14.21”

    If you don’t want to be laughed at, it’s generally best to avoid saying foolish things.

  29. Wayne says:

    @ Joe
    Was it Tip that was pushing for those tax cuts and huge military expenditures?

    That is the problem with simplify the process like so many seem to want to do. It isn’t the simple matter that something is passed or not but how and why those provisions are in there. Giving someone credit for a particular provision because they end up voting for an overall bill that contained it even though they fought very hard against that provision is asinine.

    “subject to the signature or veto by the president”

    Pretty important part don’t you think? Unless his party is not willing to uphold the veto, the President has an equal say as the simple majority of Congress. Without his signature (vote) on it or his party bucking him, it does not become a budget. In other words without his signature it is not a budget. His budget proposal gets revised because of congress and congress proposal get revised because of the President.

    It like saying congress doesn’t produce the budget. Budget committees do. After all they are the one that write it. Yes committees write it but it must pass votes by all of congress. Congress writes the actual word but it must almost alwaysneeds to get pass the vote of the President. Also remember what those committees are basing those numbers off of. The Presidents administration is very involved in the testimonies and supplying “needs” input for those committees. They are not the only ones but are a very significant part.

  30. the President has an equal say as the simple majority of Congress

    No–that is a gross simplification.

  31. To which I will add: there is a radical and important difference between the positive power to add something to a document and the negative power to reject it outright.

    The exact influence a president has over a given budget is very much dependent on the relationship of that president with majorities in Congress and public opinion. Even then, it is the Congress that puts the stuff in the budget. The president has no formal power to put anything in the budget. This matters.

  32. Wayne says:

    Without a super majority to overrule him, his veto counts as much as a simple majority. How is that wrong?

    He has no formal power but he has power to do so never the less. There are many examples of Presidents doing so. If he says add no child lift behind are I reject it outright and they add it, isn’t that the power to add?

    Oh I suppose I should correct myself. I suppose it is the clerks that actually write the words are the one who “set budgets”. The fact that it is the committees’ members that help set the agendas and what they write is irrelevant. The fact that committees, congress as a whole or the President can vote it down only means those three help set the agenda and are not actually helping set the budget.

  33. Wayne says:

    Just to cut to the chase. Equal say is as it counts in a vote. I am sure you will say that they can offer this or that amendments therefore have more say on the parts. President demand the same thing or else he threaten to veto it. A member of congress has to get at least the majority of his fellow members to pass it or deny it. The President only has to do that to get it to pass. For the most part he can on his own can deny it.

    It is not like the President and his administration stays out of the bill creation process until congress passes one.

  34. @Wayne: As you wish. This has now reached the pointless stage.

  35. Wayne says:

    Well, at least you didn’t attack some of my lousy grammar or me personally.

  36. PJ says:

    “That would take a super majority which is hard to do especially if the President party does not have the super majority.”

    I know that it’s hard to do. But it is possible. The other way is impossible, the President can’t propose a budget and the make the Congress vote for it.

    You do understand the difference? Possible vs Impossible?

  37. jwest says:

    Steven is correct to intimate that budget surpluses during the Clinton years were the product of the Republican congress, and the deficits that accumulated while Bush was in office were the fault of a Reid/Pelosi senate and house.

    However, I believe that presidents should lead in the budget process by outlining priorities and setting boundaries, then using the bully pulpit to bend congress to conform. Using the equivalent of “voting present” shows how woefully unqualified Obama was to be elected president.

  38. reid says:

    jwest: How fair and balanced of you to note that it’s always the Democrats’ fault and to take a swipe at Obama. Very plonk-worthy.

  39. jwest says:


    What can I say? It’s what I do.

  40. Wayne says:

    PJ you do understand the difference between what is possible and what actually happens?

    Presidents do contribute in setting the budget. Is it “possible” for congress to do it without his approval? Yes but when was the last time that happen? IMO the President at the time deserves approximately a third of the credit\blame and the congress at the time deserves the rest.

  41. @Wayne:

    It occurs to me that perhaps another way to make my points is this: everyone is talking about “Obama’s Budget” right now as if it was the document that was going to be voted on by the House and Senate. However, this is not the case. While the budget submitted by the President may influence what gets written, it is only a suggestion. The actual set of documents (it is actually multiple bills) that will voted upon will be constructed by Congress itself.

  42. I feel like most people that care understand the process. It is, as you indicate, more of a formality than anything. On another note, you are coming across as a tax hiking liberal Doc. Don’t you know that cutting taxes actually increases revenue into the Treasury?